The Angry Citizen

It feels good to walk through a foreign train station carrying an American passport. It is the Ferrari of travel documents. Admittedly, some officials might be kinder to Irishmen, Canadians, or the ever-diplomatic Swiss. Nothing impresses, though, like the golden eagle. As a young woman traveling through Central Asia, I loved flashing it at petty officials who would hit me up for bribes. Terror would flash into their eyes, and they would quickly make their excuses and escape, some of them practically running. Bullying random locals is one thing, but you don’t mess with the USA.

That trick might still work with petty officials in Uzbekistan. Here at home though, American citizenship is in a bad way. This, at any rate, is the argument that Victor Davis Hanson advances in his new work, The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization are Destroying the Idea of America. It is a grim book, offering little comfort and few constructive suggestions for conservatives hoping to rebuild after Donald Trump.  

Citizenship is “dying,” in Hanson’s view, because it is threatened both from above and from below. In Part I of his book, Hanson argues that Americans are devolving into a kind of “precitizenship,” losing their middle-class dignity as they slide into a state-supported debt peonage. Illegal immigrants increasingly claim the same rights and benefits as citizens, without feeling obliged to assimilate into our culture. Citizens themselves, meanwhile, are identifying more and more with ethnic groups or other “tribes,” instead of taking pride in being Americans.

Even as we devolve into clans, we are also becoming “postcitizens.” This is the subject of Part II. Here, Hanson rehashes the Mueller investigation, FBI malfeasance, impeachment proceedings, and other unhappy episodes from the Trump years. Ostensibly, he is making the broader point that unelected bureaucrats and impious progressives are increasingly governing our nations, disregarding the wishes of the people. In the final chapter, on “globalization,” Hanson completes his discourse on “postcitizenship” by bemoaning the cosmopolitan conceit that has persuaded our technocratic elites to throw national interests on the pyre of “global citizenship.” We hear much in this chapter about the infamous “Davos Man,” and about the hypocrisies of elites who tolerate the oppression of Chinese Uighurs, while taking a firm line against campus microaggressions at home.

Hanson is a classicist by training, and he does draw on that background throughout the book, sprinkling in occasional references to Herodotus or Cleisthenes. Neither history nor political theory feature prominently in this book, however. It is very much a partisan polemic, filled with scathing criticisms of the progressive left, and sturdy apologetics on behalf of the Trump Administration. A sizable portion of the book was seemingly written prior to the 2020 election, intended as an articulation of Trump’s ongoing agenda. Hanson credits Trump with a good-faith effort to reinvigorate citizenship, even in the face of strong headwinds. He presumably took up his pen looking to offer a further explanation and defense of that project.

Since the headwinds ultimately prevailed, the book ends up feeling more like a dirge. The mood is embittered and despairing, and very little is offered by way of constructive suggestions. On the very final page, Hanson half-heartedly suggests that the right might “keep trying,” perhaps with a less polarizing leader. After 400 pages of unbroken gloom, readers may be too demoralized to heed that suggestion.

For an anti-Trump conservative like myself, the dialectic of The Dying Citizen is awkward. I have a long-standing interest in the subject of citizenship, and I picked up the book looking for a stimulating discussion of that topic. I knew of course that Hanson was a stalwart defender of Trump, but given his recent book of Trumpian apologetics, I thought (perhaps naively) that he might be ready to move on to other topics. He is not.

To my mind, Trump’s leadership was simply a catastrophe, from the golden-escalator moment through the January 6 riots. Even beyond his egregious personal flaws, Trump had a demagogic genius for converting patience and optimism into fruitless rage and despair. He was perfectly qualified for exacerbating all the right’s worst flaws. I cannot feel disappointment in the Trump Administration’s failures, because I had no expectation of success. However, I would very much like to see Hanson, or others who share his perspective, re-directing their energies towards some worthier object or platform. He is a better man than Trump, but his despair is excessive, and conservatives will need to find a new path if they hope to preserve ordered liberty for future generations.

Admittedly, it is difficult to offer an uplifting message to readers who are convinced by The Dying Citizen. The problem is that the American citizen, as Hanson understands him, really is dying, if indeed he ever lived. Hanson’s view of “citizenship” is so idealized that it is hard to imagine any real, embodied society breathing much life into it. He has a strong sense of American exceptionalism, seemingly regarding citizenship in this nation as a kind of real-world political embodiment of the humanizing dreams of the Greeks and Romans.

The citizen, in his vision, stands in a golden middle ground, flanked on one side by blood-and-soil tribesmen, and on the other by vapid, deracinated globalists. He has purpose and meaningful attachment, and yet any tendencies towards fanaticism are tamed by his patriotic commitment to an ordered society. Regrettably, Hanson devotes but few words to explaining or arguing for this elevated vision, at least in this particular volume. For the most part, we see citizenship here in the negative, as the antidote to a long list of social evils that are the author’s primary focus. The structure of the book clearly implies, though, that citizenship is the highest answer both to modern alienation, and to the violence and oppression that can so easily arise when a diverse collection of human beings try to share the same patch of soil.

It is easy enough to see the appeal of such a view. Was it ever realistic, though? Precisely because Hanson’s notion of citizenship is unhelpfully elevated, its non-realization may be less disastrous than he supposes. It would feel strange to lecture such a grim writer in the conservative principle of imperfectability, but there is actually a certain sense to this. Because they tend to ask for too much, ideologues are often prone to despair. The kind of citizenship he wants is almost certainly not available, and indeed, if we make an ordered list of the various desiderata, we will note that many of the items are deeply in tension with one another.

Whether or not one agrees with this historical analysis, it seems obvious that Americans cannot unite around a shared vision that they simply do not have.

Instead of losing hope,  we might see that as an invitation to flip the Hansonian script, carefully examining those tensions, and contemplating better ways to balance the relevant goods. Citizenship as we have known it does seem unstable in our time, not least because Western citizens’ sense of entitlement has far outstripped our sense of civic obligation. This has created serious fiscal problems and left us squabbling bitterly over the pie that we currently have. Out present citizenship arrangement also solidifies massive global disparities in wealth and opportunity. Some people’s consciences are pricked when they notice the vast gulf between the life prospects of an American child and the life prospects of a Malawian child. Beyond that, humanity faces a number of problems (global pandemics, environmental threats, global terrorist networks, and more) that threaten us all collectively and often need to be addressed on a trans-national level. Nation-states are embattled, for many serious reasons, and yet they still offer citizens essential supports and protections that no other institution can realistically supply. This conundrum must somehow be resolved. It would be foolish to expect a neat, cookie-cutter solution to such complex problems. We can make a start, though, by looking seriously at the gap between entitlement and obligation and considering how our implicit social contract might be adapted to restore more balance. Hanson’s analysis may be most helpful for illuminating the existing imbalance.

Consider, for instance, his insistence that we must have a middle-class society, in which most citizens can enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that come with accumulated wealth. He laments stagnant wages and rising housing costs, which have created a deeply indebted “new peasantry.” Having said that, he then goes on to argue that government should play a limited and non-invasive role in civic life. We must remember the time-honored American values of autonomy and self-determination, shunning the contemptible, slavish “life of Julia.”

Is it realistic to demand a minimal, non-paternalistic state, while also expecting to maintain a middle-class society? If markets are relatively free, and entitlements reduced to a minimum, it seems quite likely that the United States will end up with a fairly sizable class of “peasants.” That has generally been the case historically, both here and around the world. Some people, in the spirit of G.K. Chesterton, might see this as acceptable or even desirable. (What’s wrong with peasants?) Others, like Tucker Carlson, are perfectly happy to jettison the old Reaganite demand for a limited, non-paternalistic state. Still others, like Oren Cass, have specific policy recommendations that they believe will offer an acceptable balance of the relevant goods. Hanson’s analysis gives the impression that middle-class decline is an avoidable consequence of elite progressive malfeasance. No serious consideration is given to the things non-elite citizens may need to do to sustain the blessing of a middle-class American life. It should be obvious to thoughtful readers that this picture is radically incomplete.

We see something similar in Hanson’s demand for democratic accountability, which pairs very strangely with his insistence that we need to foster a more robust sense of civic unity. Understandably, Trump supporters currently feel a particular bitterness towards bloated bureaucracies at this time. In the Trump years, there were ugly power struggles between elected politicians and career officials. Pulling back from the specific controversies of the Trump Administration, though, we should note that the democratic process does not reliably yield civic harmony. Partisan politics is a messy affair. From this book, one would get the impression that our present polarization is mainly a consequence of progressive mistakes: identity politics, elitism, and a self-loathing cosmopolitanism. Aren’t there some real controversies that divide us, too?

Nationalists like Hanson tend to see our raging social controversies as evidence of social degradation and decay. In their eyes, our Founders’ firm foundation is eroding, as we forget or betray the noble principles that grounded it.

I remain unconvinced. To me, it often seems to me that our social controversies flow in recognizable ways from the Founders’ Enlightenment ideals, as though we in the United States were living out the French Revolution in slower motion. We debate the meaning and significance of human “merit.” We agonize over trade-offs between freedom and stability. We wrestle constantly with envy and resentment, as our middle-class citizens glance side-long at one another. We struggle as individuals to gain a foothold in a society that prizes opportunity and innovation, often at the expense of tradition. As a patriotic American, I take pride in my cultural heritage, and I have hope that we might over time find adaptive strategies that help us to live together more peacefully. Realistically though, every cultural tradition leaves its inheritors with some valuable resources, and also some unique burdens. Ours is no exception.

Whether or not one agrees with this historical analysis, it seems obvious that Americans cannot unite around a shared vision that they simply do not have. As a nation, we seem to be experiencing a kind of existential crisis. Even just on the American right, there have been seismic identity shifts across my own lifetime. In my Reaganite childhood, people spoke the language of free trade, and loudly affirmed America’s responsibility to be a beacon of freedom to the world. Today, those same people are often decrying the scourge of globalism, and musing on the folly of “dying for Danzig.” Is it worth losing sleep over inadequately-assimilated immigrants or unpatriotic basketball players, when conservatives ourselves seem so unsure of what we want? Nearly everyone in this nation, it seems, craves unity and civic peace. But democracy is difficult, and civic unity is often elusive in free societies. This is one reason why some people admire authoritarian regimes like China, which, for all their many flaws, show more success at fostering cooperation among their citizens.

If we wish to remain a distinctive, free people, we must work harder to articulate a vision of American life that draws our citizenry together in pursuit of shared goals. It is hard to imagine a leader less suited to this kind of work, than Donald Trump.

In considering the scope of this project, geopolitical issues are among the most difficult. Americans expect to sit astride the world, but maintaining that position can be difficult and costly. Hanson has noticed this, but here too his analysis seems maddeningly incomplete. In his chapter on globalism, he presents domestic policy and geopolitics as a kind of zero-sum game. In his words:

The more regional concerns, the more languages, the more transnational issues, the more lands, the more customs that America must oversee, the more its original core is attenuated. The more Silicon Valley looks westward across the ocean for its talent, the less it seems to look eastward to invest in its kindred Americans; the more it seeks to synchronize global norms of censorship and deplatforming, the more it will come into conflict with the Bill of Rights. The more the United States puts its money, its military, its people, and its resources at the disposal of others, the fewer such assets will be available to serve the interests of its own citizens. And the more Americans recalibrate their values with those of the wider world, the less resonance their own constitution will have.

This is a very strange view for a patriotic American to hold. Our nation has been spectacularly enriched over the past century by global trade and influence. We stand as a shining example of how possible it is for foreign and domestic policy to be mutually supportive. There are, to be sure, hard questions to be weighed about the proper scope and mission of American foreign policy in the 21st century. But it is hard to imagine any prudent solutions coming from this highly-implausible starting point. We cannot save American citizenship by ignoring many of the features that have set us apart for the past century and more.

It has been many years since I walked through a foreign train station, but I still remember the thrill. American citizenship does mean something. I still feel a surge of pride when I see the golden eagle.

As we work through this grim political moment, we should keep that image in our minds. Our nation is not dead. We may need to adapt and change, though, in order to rekindle new life.