By Victor Davis Hanson // Defining Ideas
Before the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), where Philip II of Macedon prevailed over a common Greek alliance, the city-states had been weakened by years of social and economic turmoil. To read the classical speeches in the Athenian assembly is to learn of the democracy’s constant struggles with declining revenues, insolvency, and expanding entitlements. Rome between the First Triumvirate (59 BC) and the ascension of Caesar Augustus’s autocracy (27 BC) was mostly defined by gang violence, chaos, and civil war, the common theme being a loss of trust in republican values. Russia was in a revolutionary spiral for nearly twenty years between 1905 and the final victory of the Bolsheviks in 1922, ending up with a cure worse than the disease. And Europe between 1930 and 1939 saw most of its democracies erode as fascists and communists gained power—eventually leading to the greater disaster of the outbreak of World War II.
The United States has seen periods of near fatal internal chaos—in the late 1850s leading up to the carnage of the Civil War, during the decade of the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939, and in the chaotic 1960s. Something similar is starting to plague America today on a variety of political, economic, social, and cultural fronts.
The contenders for president reflect the loss of confidence of the times. Bernie Sanders is an avowed socialist. Yet scan the record of big government redistributionism here and abroad—from Chicago and Detroit to the insolvent Mediterranean nations of the European Union and failed states like Venezuela—and there is no encouraging model of socialist success. Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination—if she is not the first nominee in American history to be indicted, on possible charges of violating federal intelligence laws, and perhaps perjury and obstruction of justice. Donald Trump has neither political experience nor a detailed agenda, but has charged ahead on the basis of his vague promise to “make America great again”—a Jacksonian version of Obama’s equally vacuous 2008 promise of “hope and change.”
President Obama, in response to attacks on his record by Trump—and by Bill Clinton, who has spoken of “the awful legacy of the last eight years”—is entering the campaign to brag about the current economy.
But to do so, President Obama must ignore a number of liabilities that are soon coming due. Under his tenure, he did not address the unsustainable actuarial realities of Social Security and Medicare. The federal debt doubled in a manner never seen prior and can be now serviced only through de facto zero-interest rates, which in turn ossify economic growth. Due to tax hikes, new financial and business regulations, and the socialization of the health care system, per annum GDP growth under the President’s tenure will go down in history as the worst since the Great Depression. He ignored the Clinton-Gingrich compromise formula of a quarter-century ago of balancing budgets by cutting defense, capping spending, and raising taxes. Instead, Obama slashed defense spending and hiked a number of taxes, but ignored entitlements, ensuring $500 billion annual deficits—deemed successful because they were less than his first-term normal of $1 trillion annual shortfalls. The President points to the 5 percent unemployment as proof of his success, but that figure reflects Obama-era methodologies of not counting all those who have given up looking for jobs. In May 2016, a record 94,708,000 Americans were no longer in the labor force—the highest percentage of non-working Americans since the Great Depression.
Abroad, it is hard to identify a single region or U.S. national interest where things are not worse than prior to 2009. In the Middle East, few believe that the Iran deal will prevent the theocracy from obtaining the bomb; indeed, Iran has never been more active in creating chaos and threatening war. American intervention in Libya, American withdrawal from Iraq, and American neglect of Syria helped to ensure a general Middle East implosion. Reset with Russia empowered Vladimir Putin’s ongoing agenda of reabsorbing former Soviet republics. China is building artificial island bases in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea to recalibrate the balance of power in Asia—on the understanding that American failure to challenge this bellicosity has translated into de facto acceptance of it. And due to financial disasters, unchecked immigration, and populist revolts against Brussels, the European Union in its present form seems unsustainable. The only mystery is whether its unwinding will come with a slow whimper or abrupt bang.
In President Obama’s interview with The Atlantic and his chief foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes’s disclosures to the New York Times, it is evident that the administration holds a general contempt for the American-led postwar order—and the Washington bipartisan and trans-Atlantic establishment (“the Blob”) central to its stability. By any fair measure, President Obama believes that the U.S. does not, and perhaps never has, possessed the moral stature or the wherewithal to lead the Western world, which should be more equitably left to regional powers such as China, Iran, Russia, and Middle Eastern autocracies to adjudicate the affairs in their own environs.
The result has been near anarchy, not just in the natural rise of anti-American rivals, but in the fright of former allies and neutrals who are being forced to make the necessary realist adjustments with old enemies—or in the case of many Westernized allies, to perhaps privately reconsider the once taboo idea of acquiring nuclear weapons for the sake of deterrence.
But perhaps the three most telling symptoms of the current chaos are race relations, immigration, and the status of our universities and colleges—three interconnected issues that often inspire riots, demonstrations, and suppressions of free speech.
President Obama has largely ignored the old ideal of the melting pot and in its place preferred a salad-bowl multiculturalism of competing ethnicities, tribes, and races, whose activism wins concessions from local, state and federal governments. Casual comments and references by Obama—like “bring a gun” to a knife fight, the “bitter clingers” of Pennsylvania, and “typical white person”—stoked racial tensions. So did Attorney General Eric Holder’s crude referrals to “my people” and a “nation of cowards.”
The Ferguson and the Baltimore riots, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the systematic carnage in Chicago all embody paradoxes: facts are sometimes less important than allegations; the police are the culprits of urban violence both for responses that are too aggressive and too passive; and in a static economy, inner city youth can’t find jobs because they have criminal records and lack the skills that would make them employable.
Apparently, the Obama administration never considered that a multiracial America united by one culture was an historical exception. Everywhere else, multiculturalism and tribalism without assimilation, integration, and intermarriage have proved to be an abject and usually violent catastrophe: most recently, in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, Rwanda, and the Middle East. Europe’s attempt to emulate a multiracial United States is ending in utter failure with unchecked immigration, multicultural incoherence, and rising Islamism.
The recent California riots at Trump rallies, along with the widely reported crimes committed by illegal aliens in sanctuary cities, reveal the wages of unchecked immigration that is increasingly neither diverse and meritocratic nor legal and measured—the traditional requisites that promote rapid and full integration. Over one in four Californians was not born in the U.S.—a statistic that becomes worrisome when coupled with the state’s policy of sanctuary cities and new educational curricula that emphasize grievance and separatism rather than assimilation and unity. When rioting youths in San Diego, Fresno, and San Jose burn or deface American flags, as they have been doing in recent weeks, and wave Mexican flags instead, then we are witnessing a tragic farce, the consequences of decades of ethnic-chauvinism, multiculturalism, and cluelessness of the norms and realities outside of America.
American immigration policy is not so much “broken” as increasingly neo-Confederate and illogical. Three-hundred state and municipal jurisdictions have declared themselves, in good 1850s fashion, immune from federal law as sanctuary cities, while over 1 million illegal aliens have at some point been arrested, and make up nearly 30 percent of the federal inmate population. In Orwellian terms, illegal immigration largely from Latin America and Mexico, is called “diversity,” nullification of federal laws is known as “sanctuary cities,” and foreign nationals residing illegally are referred to as “undocumented migrants.” Ultimately the central paradox of immigration is the strange nexus of anger and grievance against the United States by immigration advocates—and the overriding desire nonetheless to enter and reside in such a purportedly unattractive place.
The universities in some sense are the embryos of social unrest. The 1960s free speech and free love movements, with their rampant drug use, advocacy of unchecked and raucous expression, and resistance to authority have strangely given way to today’s speech codes, safe spaces, micro-aggressions, and trigger warnings. Yesterday’s “anything goes” hippie student is today’s Victorian prude who cannot quite square the circle of relaxed sexuality and drugs with the demands that the university act in loco parentis for perpetual adolescents.
This election year so far has emblemized the perfect storm of unrest and confusion—and an even more worrisome response to it. In the past, when 51 percent of societies no longer believed in or wished to defend their collective values and traditions, there were no longer reasons for them to continue. And so they did not—a warning we should heed.