Victor Davis Hanson // Historian’s Corner
Yet rarely do we connect America’s malaise, its divisions, and its obsessions with national decline, to a loss of citizenship—the original glue that once held together the American experiment. Perhaps we assume that a “citizen” is a natural concept that arose organically with the ascent of civilization itself.
It did not.
Citizenship appeared quite late in history, millennia after settled populations arose in the ancient Middle East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. The first citizens emerged among some 1,500 small city-states in Greece not until the 8th century BC, Yet they established the founding principle of citizenship for the next three millennia.
Unlike the subjects and serfs of prior dynasties, monarchies, and tyrannies, these city-states invented the idea that at least half the residents who owned small farms had the unique right to say what they wished, to elect their own officials, and to vote on their taxes, budgets, and when and when not to go to war. Their equal seats in the outdoor assemblies mirror-imaged their identical slots in the phalanx and their small farms in the agrarian grid outside of town—originally a natural equality rather than top-down enforced equity.
A novel middle class enjoyed economic independence that anchored political independence. City-states of stationary peoples insisted on demarcated borders. Inside them, unique laws, customs, and traditions for generations united the citizenry, made them distinct from their neighbors, and ensured civic solidarity and security. Ancient tribal loyalties slowly eroded. They were relegated to vestigial chauvinistic myths and superseded by shared fealty to constitutional states.
Statesmen praised the “ancestral constitution.” They were wary of changing its rules for mere contemporary advantage. Unelected officials were necessary, but when too numerous and intrusive looked upon with earned suspicion. Enlightened philosophers talked of Greeks as “citizens of the world” (“cosmopolitans”) well beyond the Aegean. But rarely were these dreamers given the reins of government to reify their sketchy utopianism.
Despite the small population and natural poverty of rocky Greece, the Hellenic states thrived and preserved their freedom at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, in the face of the successive invasions of the overwhelming forces of the transcontinental Persian Empire.
Yet over 140 years later, the richer, but more internally divided Greeks of the 4th century BC lost their freedom from other, and this time successful, invaders from the north led by the Macedonian King Philip II and his son Alexander. The Macedonians did what the Persians could not—and with a mere tenth of the forces of King Darius and Xerxes a century-and-a half earlier. An erosion in Greek citizenship perhaps best explains the fractious Greek states’ failure to unite, sufficiently arm, and confidently meet the invader.
The American founding classes were influenced by these classical Western traditions of Greek consensual government and Roman republicanism. They sought to emulate the checks on the use of government power. The Founders likewise divided the government up between legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and institutionalized personal freedom—all in reaction to their own recent history and what they knew of classical warnings from the past.
The new American Constitution also sought ways to ensure that the small property-owning, common-sensical classes became the bulwark of the new nation. Like the classical world, Americans built-into their new system of governance innate ways to change and question the status quo, in the tradition of singular Western self-criticism and reexamination.
For all the subsequent dislocations of the vast frontier expansion, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the suffrage and civil rights movements, and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, America did not just endure, but became the freest, wealthiest, and most powerful nation in the history of civilization. Key to that miracle were the resiliency of American citizens and their rights and responsibilities entailed in citizenship.
Yet the middle classes until recently have suffered from decades of stagnant incomes, even as the country at large was enriched as never before. Middle-class and poor students owe $1.7 trillion in aggregate college debt. The percentage of Americans owning homes, after enjoying record levels, is again dropping. The average net worth of Americans at retirement is also plunging. About 40 percent of American adults can only make minimum payments on their mounting credit card debt.
The age when Americans marry, have their first child, or buy a home has risen to new highs as American fertility rates reach new modern lows. The 19th-century Americanophile Alexis de Tocqueville’s fear of government-induced dependency, resulting in prolonged adolescence replacing self-reliant citizens is becoming a reality.
Some twenty-million foreign residents remain in the US illegally. Over the current fiscal year, nearly 2 million foreign nationals are forecast to enter the US without legal authorization. Most will likely cross the wide-open border unvaccinated and untested for COVID-19, while Americans are warned that their government may go door-to-door to roust them out for inoculations. Indeed, the idea of a southern border had been reduced to a mere postmodern construct—as if nations need no formalized demarcations at all, or are racist or xenophobic to think they do.
America’s once successful melting pot of integrating, assimilating and intermarrying legal immigrants has not been so much replaced by the “salad bowl” alternative of primary allegiance to separate identities, as by sheer chaos. Millions of immigrants vote with their feet for better lives in the United States. Yet their American hosts increasingly have little idea why that is so, and none about how they might rapidly become fellow citizens.
Tribalism, the incendiary stuff of ancient empires, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Rwanda, is returning with a vengeance that supersedes mere hyphenated names and identity politics. Race, not class, is considered the more immutable, and therefore desirable—and useful—divide.
Certainly, the Civil Rights-era dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.—our characters, not the color of our skins, is what matters—is increasingly challenged by a new wokist creed that to fight bad discrimination, one must embrace good discrimination. Or to put it another way, to curb racial obsessions, one must first become obsessed with racial differences.
Few pause to reflect that a large, multiracial democracy is history’s rare, fragile, and volatile artifact, or that until recently America was about the only nation in history that had even tried such an ambitious project.