In his book, The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America, Victor Davis Hanson has summed up how Americans are losing their citizenship. We are becoming a nation of peasants, residents, and tribes. Citizenship is being attacked by the post-modern academic, bureaucratic, and political elites.
Hanson defines citizenship as,
Citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get along without it. What keeps a republic on its legs is good citizenship… Citizenship, after all, is not an entitlement; it requires work. Yet too many citizens of republics, ancient and modern, come to believe that they deserve rights without assuming responsibilities—and they don’t worry how or why or from whom they inherited their privileges…
A free, legally equal, and politically independent citizenry, when translated to the modern American experience, means that citizens of the United States should not follow any laws other than those authorized by their own elected representatives… No one American deserves greater deference under the law than any other… American citizens, bearing natural and inalienable rights bestowed by a supreme deity, are accountable only to themselves…
For citizenship to work, the vast majority of residents must be citizens. But to become citizens, residents must be invited in on the condition of giving up their own past loyalties for those of their new hosts… In return for our rights to pick our own leaders and make our own laws, we are asked to obey America’s statutes. We must honor the traditions and customs of our country. As Americans we cherish the memory of those who bequeathed to us such an exceptional nation, and we contribute… our time, money, and, if need be, safety and lives on our country’s behalf.
(Excerpted from pages 1 – 4)
He maintains that our Republic is on shaky ground and describes from what we came and to which we may return,
Republics are so often lost not over centuries but within a single decade… History is not static…citizenship can wax and wane…and abruptly vanish… A sign of democratic sclerosis is a loss of confidence in the integrity of voting—to the point that it becomes seen as a futile exercise rather than a bulwark of citizenship.
In most regimes of the past, there was one set of laws for the rich, priests, autocrats, and aristocrats and quite another for those without money, high religious or political office, or noble birth and lineage. Or those who gained power by election often sabotaged subsequent elections on the theory of “one election, one time.”
(Excerpted from pages 4 – 6)
Hanson summarizes democracy’s genesis and benefits,
Citizenship… explains the Greek achievement of drawing on the talents and energy of a much-empowered resident and middle-class population… Once protected by laws, rather than by the transitory goodwill and patronage of aristocrats and autocrats, in a practical sense the citizen has far more legal and economic latitude to paint, write, build, farm, create, discover, or litigate… If not worried about being arbitrarily jailed, killed, deprived of his property and inheritance, or told where and how to live, a citizen is more likely to exploit his own talents—and often create wealth for his commonwealth.
(Excerpted from page 9)
From these origins, the idea and practice of citizenship increased in fits and starts; however, it is always in danger of disappearing,
The subsequent postclassical idea of Western constitutional citizenship ebbed and flowed through periods of retrenchment, oppression, and authoritarianism. Nevertheless, it slowly evolved through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment toward an ever-greater array of rights and forevermore inclusion of the formerly dispossessed…
By the twenty-first century, the Western idea of citizenship, after twenty-five hundred years of evolution, neared its logical fruition with the full emancipation of the poor, women, and minority populations after the long-ago abolition of serfdom, indentured peasantry, and chattel slavery…
In a practical sense the privileges of Western citizenship are, in fact, diluting… Just as there was no constitutional government before 700 BC, so there is no rule that there must be democracies and republics in the twenty-first century… Affluence and leisure often prove more dangerous to citizenship than poverty and drudgery.
(Excerpted from pages 10 – 11)
The body of Hanson’s argument explores the tension pulling our Republic apart,
Citizenship in the United States is now being pulled in two different and often antithetical directions, from below and above, spontaneously and yet by design, through both ignorance of and intimacy with the Constitution.
Many Americans do not know or worry much about the consequences of radical demographic, cultural, or political influences for the status of citizenship. They are indifferent to millions of immigrants of uncertain status, veritable resident strangers in their midst… When nearly four in ten Americans have no notion of their rights under the First Amendment, it is easy to curb them.
On the other hand, some elites believe that they know the Constitution all too well and therefore believe it in dire need of radical deletions and alterations to fit the times. They envision an always improving, changing, and evolving Constitution that should serve as a global model for a vast, ecumenical brotherhood, requiring a global administrative state to monitor and enforce its ambitious idealism.
(Excerpted from pages 13 – 14)
He divides his exposition according to these two tensions which he terms “precitizenry” and “postcitizenry.” Hanson summarizes his “precitizenry” argument this way,
The notion of precitizenry reflects ancient economic, political, and ethnic ideas and customs that were once thought antithetical to the modern democratic state. Yet, in organic fashion, they are reappearing and threaten to overwhelm the American commonwealth. (Page 14)
His argument against precitizenry is further divided into chapters titled Peasants, Residents, and Tribes. He writes,
Peasants [reviews] the ancient argument that to be self-governing, citizens must be economically autonomous… Without a middle class, society becomes bifurcated. It splinters into one of modern masters and peasants. In that situation, the function of government is not to ensure liberty but to subsidize the poor to avoid revolution and to exempt the… wealthy, who reciprocate by enriching and empowering the governing classes.
Residents argues that [sovereign] states must privilege citizens over mere residents… Citizens live within delineated and established borders. They share a common history. Their sacred physical space allows them to pursue their constitutional rights without interference from abroad. Living on common and exclusive ground encourages shared values, assimilation, and integration and defines national character… Yet we now live…in an age [where] …an accident of birth should not deprive any of the planet’s eight billion people from entering and living in the United States. Citizenship, however, is not indestructible.
Tribes reminds us why all citizens should give up their own ethnic, racial, and tribal primary identities… Only through such a brutal bargain of assimilation can they sustain a common culture in a century in which superficial racial and tribal differences, the fuel for many of history’s wars, are becoming no longer incidental but recalibrated as essential to the American character… Once a man owes…more loyalty to his first cousin than to a fellow citizen, a constitutional republic cannot exist.
(Excerpted from pages 14 – 16)
The second half of the book, describing postcitizenry, “[focuses] on the even greater dangers to citizenship posed by a relatively small American elite.” This part is divided into chapters titled Unelected, Evolutionaries, and Globalists. Hanson writes,
Unelected chronicles how an unelected federal bureaucracy has absorbed much of the power of the US Congress, yearly creating more laws and regulations than the House and Senate together could debate, pass, and send to the president for signing… Even the office of the presidency…often lacks sufficient knowledge to control the permanent legions deeply embedded within the state… The bureaucratic elite believes that it can and should preempt any elected official who deems it…dangerous. If the citizen cannot elect officials to audit, control, or remove the unelected, then he has lost his sovereign power.
Evolutionaries …are the unapologetic grand architects of dismantling constitutional citizenship, inordinately represented by political activists, media grandees, the legal profession, and academics… As progressives, …they accuse the Founders of lacking our modern wisdom, today’s enlightened education, and the benefits of a constantly improving, innate human nature… The evolutionaries are, by all means [necessary], …in a trajectory toward a 51 percent, majority-vote-rules nation, without sufficient constitutional and long-accustomed guardrails.
Globalists …explains the current fad that Americans are transitioning into citizens of the world. An ancient but unworkable idea of cosmopolitanism has reemerged, now driven by privileged utopians empowered by twenty-first-century global travel, finance, and communications.
On the one hand, they are cynical critics of American exceptionalism and nationalism. On the other, they wish to extend American-style democracy and liberal tolerance across the globe—but without much thought about where such singular ideas arose or why so much of the world has always resisted them.
Globalism’s chief characteristic, however, is more mundane. Its architects focus on the distant and anonymous abroad, less so on concrete Americans nearby …In the end, globalization may not westernize the planet so much as internationalize America.
(Excerpted from pages 16 – 18)
In summation, he writes,
…Everything that we once thought was so strong, so familiar, and so reassuring about America has been dissipating for some time. The year 2020, in the manner of other revolutionary years, such as 1848, 1917, and 1968, has peeled away that veneer of complacency and self-satisfaction. Contemporary events have reminded Americans that their citizenship is fragile and teetering on the abyss—and yet the calamities can also teach, indeed energize, them to rebuild and recover what they have lost. (Page 18)
Despite massive immigration of the last half century, with immigrants traditionally more prone to have large families, the national median family size has shrunk dramatically. The 1960s average of 2.3 children per family has declined to a current 1.9. That figure is well below the 2.1 percent rate necessary to maintain current population size. When we speak of a “dying citizen,” we can take that phrasing quite literally: Americans are not reproducing themselves and are starting to follow European models of slow-motion demographic suicide. (Page 35)
Hanson suggests Americans must exercise their citizenship more vigorously, at county, state, and federal levels, in order to recover our Republic.
What is interesting is that Alexis de Tocqueville made corresponding observations at the beginning of the Republic in the 1830s in volume 1 and volume 2 of his book Democracy in America. He contended that American liberty could deteriorate into anarchy at one extreme or despotism at the other. Anarchy results when individuals refuse to subject their freedom to the Republic’s laws and customs. Despotism results when individuals relinquish liberty, either under coercion or by free will, for dependence and servitude to an elite class. He went further by saying that democracy, viewed as equality of outcomes, would atomize and level society and lull each individual into mass conformity administered by a central bureaucracy.
De Tocqueville presaged the fall of the Republic that Hanson now warns us against. This is the precipice upon which we stand. It makes you wonder at Augustine’s thoughts as he shepherded his flock in the midst of Rome’s fall. John Adams, of course, said,
…We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
As pastor Wang Yi wrote in 2018, prior to his incarceration for preaching the gospel,
I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
May we who are destined for captivity have the endurance and faith to do so.
Victor Davis Hanson Diagnoses the Dying Citizen, November 3, 2021, YouTube, Hoover Institute