Joshua Mitchell // First Things
The contemporary political and social crisis in America cries out for explanation. Above all, we need a comprehensive account of the identity politics—the politics of innocence and transgression, in which race, gender, and sexuality play central parts—that seems to be sweeping liberal politics as we have known it into the dustbin of history. Because identity politics is at its heart a ghastly distortion of Christianity, a comprehensive analysis of what now deforms America will need to be a theological account. Without recognizing that point, even the most incisive thinkers will fall short.
Among public intellectuals writing within a secular framework about America’s troubles, Victor Davis Hanson towers above the rest. A renowned and now retired professor of classics at CSU-Fresno and a fifth-generation farmer in nearby Selma, CA, his encyclopedic knowledge of classical civilization has shed light on the vexing questions of politics and citizenship that now haunt contemporary America, in ways few can match; and his labors as a modest farmer give him an unusually deep understanding of the plight of the American middle class, which has been weakened by two generations of neglect, and now is in danger of expiring. No citizens, no polity; no middle class, no citizens. This is ancient wisdom, lived out in the “red-state” Fresno area—a wisdom Hanson lays out calmly and meticulously in The Dying Citizen, as he watches our 250-year-old American political experiment with liberty falter.
Hanson’s writings span more than three decades. In the Trump era he emerged as a leading thinker in the American conservative pantheon. What were American citizens—beleaguered by globalist pretensions abroad and malignant identity politics at home—to make of candidate and then President Trump? The president hurled his invective at elites for selling out their nation and abandoning the middle class; but to the dismay of so many in conservative circles, he could not articulate a comprehensive alternative. Hanson has been the most able interpreter and translator for an administration whose intuitions about borders, immigration policy, national interests, entrepreneurship, decentralization, and politically correct speech called out for a higher-level articulation than Trump or anyone in it could provide.
The left lost no time in framing Trumpism as the darkness to its light, as the barbaric Id to its conscious Ego, as the Russia to its America—in short, as what anthropologists call the Primitive Other. For the supposedly universalist left, Trump was a sinister echo of the dictators of the 1930s. By contrast, Hanson discerns in Trump a still incipient account of the need to revitalize the nation, that largest of political units within which cohesive political action is possible. Again, while the left saw Trump as representing “white rage,” Hanson is alive to the groanings of a multiracial middle class, dispirited by elites who profited from what was taken to be a law of economic necessity that rendered economic outsourcing inevitable and middle-class livelihoods inconvenient but unavoidable collateral damage.
American elites, in short, forgot politics and embraced economic necessity. They had forgotten, or never known, what Plato and Aristotle taught: Important as the economy (oikos, household) may be, it is subsidiary to the polis. The consumer is a lesser man than the citizen. The former longs for the cheapness of things; the latter longs for a higher political union, through which a just society may be built and responsible citizens may be formed.
Less generously, our elites used their political authority to assure us that economic necessity was the summum bonum of our foreign policy. Our manufacturing capacity and the immense reservoir of human capital that make it possible are outsourced to China—but we can all save money by shopping at Walmart, so be of good cheer. Consumption. Never-ending consumption.
Libertarians have been partly to blame. Having read the first 100 pages of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, they rushed to break up unions and eliminate other “frictions” in America, dreaming of unfettered global free trade. But there is a reason Smith’s book is not entitled The Wealth of the World. Man lives in a political community, a community in time and place, with borders, classes of people, and ideals to protect. The true statesman understands that the world-around division of labor will produce more stuff. And he also recognizes that his political community cannot be sacrificed at the altar of economic necessity. There is no in-principle resolution to this tension between politics and economics. Sometimes a nation will have to open up its markets; sometimes it will have to close them off. Sometimes government will have to underwrite technologies; sometimes its heavy-handedness in deciding where R&D efforts should go will be off the mark. Thoughtful citizens and prudent leaders will have to argue it out, from one election cycle to the next. Hanson the scholar, and Hanson the middle-class farmer, understands that free trade is not the highest good. This is the first lesson The Dying Citizen teaches us. Politics matters. Our nations matter.
Hanson’s first theme, then, is that politics should take priority over economics. His second is that liberal citizenship can easily be undone. A citizenship based, not on blood and soil, but on the idea of liberty, is an astonishing but fragile achievement, always in danger of falling apart into the primordial, tribal, condition of man. In dismantling the idea of the liberal citizen, the left does not offer a post-liberal idea of citizenship; it rather returns us to the pre-liberal condition of tribalism.
Do these two insights—the priority of politics, the fragility of liberal citizenship—shed enough light to make sense of what is happening to and in America today? Yes, but only up to a point. What’s missing is the theological perspective that few dare provide. Hanson the classicist recognizes the madness of treating citizens primarily as bearers of group identity, but treats it under the category of tribalism. More light is shed if we consider the distinction between liberal citizen and tribal member in terms of the biblical category of the scapegoat. The pagan, pre-Christian understanding is that the human stain can be removed and purity achieved by group scapegoating. Christianity declared that man’s stain is so indelible that only Christ, our advocate, could cover it over. Group scapegoating—and this is the breathtaking insight Christianity provides—is but a superficial attempt to solve a problem that has no mortal resolution. If this account is on the mark, then liberal citizenship is only possible if the Christian insight has taken hold of a civilization just enough so that members of different groups could avoid looking at each other as possible scapegoats, and treat each other instead as legally equal persons. On this reading, it is not enough to say that what lies underneath liberal citizenship is tribalism. Rather, we must say the Christian insight that only a divine scapegoat can remove man’s stain made liberal citizenship possible; and that with the eclipse of Christianity, Western civilization returns to the group scapegoating that tribes practice, one against another.
This suggests an answer to the contemporary problem of identity politics that Hanson does not consider: namely, we cannot save the category of the liberal citizen without a renewed Christianity, by which I mean here the recovery of the insight that man’s stain is so deep that Christ alone can cover it over. Absent that understanding, the identity politics regime will continue apace, with now this group, now that, being put forward as an offering that, if purged and scapegoated, will take away the sins of the world. Currently, the offering is the white heterosexual man. In time, after he is purged, identity politics will come for everyone else.