Daniel J. Mahoney
It is hard to dispute the claim that the United States is a political and social order in the midst of an immense crisis. The old political consensus in defense of free speech, especially political speech, has been shattered. The woke aim to “cancel” their opponents and to erase them from the community of shared memory, a technique seemingly borrowed from the pages of Orwell’s 1984. A large part of the political class and the key institutions of civil society—the academy, the corporate world, the mainstream media, Big Tech, many of the churches, and even parts of the military—has been colonized by those who want to make self-loathing our reigning societal principle. In addition, all around us we see reckless displays of oikophobia (hatred and derision of one’s home or country) and what Roger Scruton called a “culture of repudiation” that denies the moral legitimacy of our civilizational and civic inheritance.
This is the state of affairs described by Victor Davis Hanson, the distinguished classicist and public intellectual, in his indispensable new book, The Dying Citizen. In the regime of what he calls the “post-citizen,” the very notion of a territorial democracy, defined by borders, with accompanying rights and responsibilities, is attacked as outmoded, exploitative, racist, and inhumane. To defend it is to risk being called a reactionary, a bigot, a “domestic extremist.” Libertarians (at least the extreme ones) and cosmopolitans alike, he says, “delight in the idea of no borders.” Humanitarians, in particular, “take moral satisfaction in embracing illegal immigrants” in what they see as a welcome “opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion.” The country that the “undocumented” arrive in is no longer said to be the “last best hope of earth” but a racist cauldron that is beyond redemption. Ingratitude is the defining trait of the post-citizen, whose self-conscious project is to replace the territorial citizen with the “citizen of the world.” Paradoxically, if predictably, the post-citizen—wedded to identity politics and nihilistic contempt for our hard-won liberal and republican political traditions—awakens the dogs of tribalism that territorial democracy had done so much to tame.
Hanson tells this story exceedingly well while avoiding an undue preoccupation with the present moment. To explain the contemporary assault on citizenship in theory and practice, one must return to a well-grounded understanding of authentic citizenship and consensual government. Hanson avoids both unwarranted pessimism and what Raymond Aron once called “facile progressivism,” the notion that “history automatically obeys the dictates of reason.” Early on in the book, Hanson notes that “civilizations experience descents, detours, and regressions—and abrupt implosions” as well as real if always tenuous movements toward decency, civic freedom, and material prosperity. And he adds starkly that “history also is mostly the story of non-citizenship,” that is, of myriad autocracies, theocracies, empires without law and consensual rule, and brutal despotisms, ancient and modern. Consensual government under the rule of law, and the “ruling and being ruled in turn” that Aristotle argued characterized true political life, is indeed a comparatively rare and precious inheritance that should never be taken for granted. As Hanson remarks, the relatively free and consensual civic orders that allowed Socrates, Sophocles, and Cicero to thrive were the exception not the rule. Even then, Socrates perished at the hands of democratic Athens, and Cicero was put to death in a Rome that had lost its republican spirit.
Following the classical political philosophers, Hanson argues that authentic citizenship is difficult for both the rich, who are prone to excess and a desire for domination, and for the poor, who are too often characterized by dependency and envy. With clarity and eloquence, he renews Aristotle’s defense of “middleness” (to meson in Greek). The relatively self-sufficient, hard-working, property-owning citizen largely avoids the moral and civic defects of the rich, who are prone to mastery and illiberal command, and the poor, who are prone to reliance on masters or to rebellion.
This was the agrarian ideal of the Greek polis and the Roman republic (expertly explored by Hanson in his 1995 book The Other Greeks). It was renewed in decisive respects in pre- industrial America and then applied, with necessary modifications, to the middle-class democracy described by Tocqueville in Democracy in America. In a chapter provocatively titled “Peasants,” Hanson convincingly argues that the American version of “middleness” is under assault and that few effective efforts have been made “to preserve it in a radically changing globalized world.” Traditional middle-class citizenship is less and less an ideal for the young, who seem to prefer an abstractly defined “socialism” to a property-owning democracy. Few of them think of defining “personal fulfillment and responsible citizenship” by the criteria of “raising families,” good and noble children, “in a stable society.”
In California, where Hanson was born and raised, and where he long combined scholarship and the teaching of the classics with being a raisin farmer in the Central Valley, an ominous political project is at work. There the middle class dissipates and the dependent poor and post-civic rich together define a dystopian future. At one end, the poor and many legal or illegal immigrants are provided with generous subsidies and entitlements. At the other end, the rich find their way around the onerous taxes, environmental restrictions, and business regulations they impose on others in the name of progressive politics. The old “agrarian” ideal, or its modified middleclass version, has largely been replaced by the ethos of the peasant dependent upon overlords, elected or unelected. Few of the “exemptions and enticements” offered to the poor and the rich apply to the beleaguered middle class. The old Aristotelian civic ideal has been radically inverted as never before.
California is thus an increasingly neo-feudal society, as the urbanist Joel Kotkin has called it, driven by an essentially post-civic ideology, the one that dominates our schools from kindergarten through graduate school. This ethos is promoted by “evolutionaries” (as Hanson calls them) who believe that human nature has somehow evolved and that the Constitution of 1787 and the principles underlying it are outmoded if not morally repellent. These “progressive elites” see borders and boundaries as arbitrary and unjust, and they hope to replace the responsible citizen with the “resident” who deserves all the privileges of citizenship but none of the responsibilities. In this view, one’s legal status, or commitment to the country, matters not a whit.
Assimilation and a shared civic faith are affronts to equality and human dignity in the new dispensation. Tribalism increasingly coexists with the residues of authentic citizenship, while some immigrant groups (think La Raza) have become openly militant and racialist and show little or no affection for the country where their members reside. In all this, Hanson sees only regression. He rightly insists that tribalism, encouraged and celebrated by elite post-citizens, “is another mortal enemy of the dying citizen.”
Hanson welcomes multiracial democracy but sees only civic destruction accompanying multiculturalism of the most aggressive kinds. Who can reasonably suggest that having two “national anthems” played before NFL games, one for whites and one for blacks, is a victory for civic inclusiveness? It is apartheid—racial separateness—pure and simple. Such measures are toxic to the civic spirit; they promote “infighting and rivalry” and eventually open and violent civic discord.
Hanson devotes some moving pages to a discussion of the classics program he helped establish at California State University, Fresno in the 1980s and ’90s. The study of Greek language, literature, and thought brought the most disparate people together. He writes that “Homer was no more or less foreign to a Mexican American than to me, a Swedish American professor.” In such a shared world of study, in openness to the best that has been thought and said, there could never be such a thing as “cultural appropriation.” As the French Catholic poet and thinker Charles Péguy wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, “Homer is new each morning, and nothing is as old as the morning paper.” The new tribalism closes us off from the prospects for affirming our common humanity and from communing with truth and art that partakes of the eternal, of the truly enduring and humanizing.
The culture of repudiation also attempts to turn imperfect but genuine heroes into criminals and oppressors to be canceled, “toppled,” and ignorantly despised. The American pantheon of heroes has always been capacious, as Hanson reminds us: It includes such diverse figures as Washington, Lincoln, Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., U. S. Grant, Booker T. Washington, Amelia Earhart, the Wright brothers, Jonas Salk, and John Glenn. Americans have added other authentically great “persons of color” such as Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Tecumseh, Jim Thorpe, Chief Joseph, and Jackie Robinson to that illustrious pantheon. But in a world overcome by the zeal for repudiation, heroes are daily expunged.
Ignorant and ungrateful mobs tear down statues of Junípero Serra, Douglass, and Quaker abolitionists. Angry students tell me, quite falsely, that Lincoln owned slaves. Do our youthful iconoclasts have any sense of how spiritually impoverished, and hopeless, a world would be without heroes and saints to lift our aspirations above the run-of-the-mill and to remind us of virtuous and holy human possibilities?
Without truly theorizing in the manner of Scruton or Pierre Manent, Hanson establishes that civic order and consensual government are unthinkable without a bounded territorial community—in our day, a territorial democracy that is far from narrow and parochial. Citizens respect the civic achievements of other civic-minded free peoples. The supporters of such admirable displays of the human capacity for self-government should not be confused with isolationists, xenophobes, and racists as they so often are by their cultured despisers. The self-governing nation is the only free and decent political order that has successfully domesticated tribalism while institutionalizing a respect for law and personal freedom and avoiding authoritarian and imperial overreach.
But how can we preserve the achievements of the civic order when our society approaches them in a spirit of self-loathing and contempt? Victor Davis Hanson’s immensely erudite and inspiriting book offers a most welcome corrective to those influential forces and doctrines in our midst that conspire to delegitimize the citizen and citizenship as such. In doing so, he provides us with hope that our society still has within it significant powers of rejuvenation. To preserve “middleness” and middle-class democracy, we must rekindle the mix of thoughtfulness, civic fortitude, and tough-minded moderation that is the mark of the free man and woman. Let us hope we have the resolve to face up to this challenge—it won’t be a minute too soon.
Mr. Mahoney is a professor emeritus at Assumption University and a senior fellow at the Real Clear Foundation. His book The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation will be published in the spring of 2022.