By Khoa Sands ‘26
The idea of decline has always held a certain allure to historians and politicians alike. The high prophet of this declinism was Oswald Spengler, whose 1918 book The Decline of the West has become a motivating treatise for the American New Right. For these modern-day doomsayers, the United States is predestined to ruin, beset by internal crises of spiritedness and domestic politics as well as external threats of rising challengers to the US-led world order. These concerns are not unfounded – a revanchist China will be the largest geopolitical crisis of the twenty-first century and any casual observer of American politics can attest to the sorry state of domestic politics in America today.
It was on these concerns that Mitch Daniels ‘71 came to speak at Princeton to the American Whig-Cliosophic Society in an event last month, sponsored by Princetonians for Free Speech, titled “Struggles of an Optimist.” In his speech, Daniels noted that “everyone” from investors to preachers to politicians to pundits is predicting major chaos in the next twenty to thirty years. Although external threats from Russia, Iran, and especially China are serious, the most pressing concern, for Daniels, is the internal troubles of the United States today.
In Daniels’ view, political polarization and calcification are the most serious threats to our liberal political order. The American populace seems unable to speak to each other about politics, increasingly defining themselves by their political identity. Today, Americans are even segregating themselves by political affiliation, contributing to the cultural, political, and geographic divisions of the country. In the media, politics is increasingly framed as a choice between a party that stands for American liberal democracy and a party that has supposedly rejected it. Certainly, the Right has had a tenuous relationship with democracy, the history of voting rights in the United States and the lies of the 2020 election being no exception. But the story isn’t so simple. Although Conservatives are traditionally wary of populist democracy, the Right increasingly views “the people” as part of the “silent majority,” with strong conservative sympathies.
On the other hand, the American Left has long had its own anti-democratic impulses. Although the Left is generally in favor of mass democracy, many would prefer to leave substantive political decisions to unelected “experts” and bureaucrats. In the view of many, the Left has become the side of entrenched special interests, unelected bureaucrats, and “the elites” in general. This impulse towards an anti-democratic version of liberalism is especially prevalent at Princeton, a hub of elite power and ideas so often criticized by populist conservatives.
Despite the obvious threat of autocracy, the more pervasive and plausible threat is that of epistocracy – a form of Noocracy (rule by the wise) theorized by political scientist Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy. Brennan shares the common concerns about democracy – notably the irrationality and downright ignorance of the people. His solution, “epistocracy” is to prioritize the votes of the politically informed over the masses. A true rule by elites in this manner, according to Daniels, is something to be avoided at all costs, as it erodes the democratic foundations of our Republic. In Daniels’ view, political polarization and calcification and the impulse towards epistocracy as well as foreign and economic threats combine to create the coming crisis.
Yet – as noted in the title of his talk – Daniels is not a pessimist resolved toward declinism. The first generation after a crisis, he noted, is the “hero generation,” which must rebuild society. The silver lining is that a society has the greatest potential for growth and improvement after a crisis, because, in Daniels’ words, “calcified special interests are destroyed.”
Having served as President of Purdue University, one of the top public universities in the country, Daniels returned to Princeton to speak on the role of “elites” in America in light of this coming crisis. Elites are necessary, Daniels claimed, yet elites must be exemplary leaders. Above all, they must be empathetic, not sympathetic. Daniels walked a thin line between optimism and declinism and between elitism and populism. Elites are necessary, yet America must maintain our democracy against epistocratic impulses. A crisis is coming, yet it may just present an opportunity to revitalize our republic. What is missing from elite education then is a sense of noblesse oblige, a responsibility towards the common welfare of the republic. The elite Liberalism so prevalent in the Ivy League must democratize itself in service of the common good. If the next generation leads with empathy instead of sympathy and self-sacrifice instead of selfishness, the American Republic can be revitalized to weather any crisis.
Khoa Sands ‘26, a PFS Writing Fellow, is a General Officer of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and a Vice President of the Princeton Human Values Forum.