What does it mean to be an American citizen today?
Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor emeritus at California State University, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about citizenship and other topics covered in his new book “The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America.”
A bestselling author and one of The Daily Signal’s most popular columnists, Hanson’s latest book serves as a wake-up call for citizens to take their responsibility seriously.
“I think we have to just take a deep breath and say, ‘We have to reassert citizenship,'” Hanson says. “We’re starting to see it with local school boards, where somebody, somehow, thought that either school bureaucrats or locally elected people are not responsible for the will of the voters who either elected them or they were hired by elected officials through that vote. And yet parents are starting to object and hold them accountable.”
Hanson also reflects on historical comparisons to the tumultuous year 2020. And he explains why, despite the challenges we face today, he remains optimistic about America’s future.
Listen to the full interview or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: Let’s begin with some basic and foundational questions. How do you define citizenship and why should we as American citizens be so grateful for it?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, it’s an ancient word. It comes from the Latin “civis” and it was the Roman version of “politis,” and you can see that politics and civilization and civic and all those rich English roots come from that concept of a citizen.
We can start with what it’s not. It’s not a subject, it’s not a serf, it’s not a slave. It’s somebody who is empowered to pick their own form of government, their own elected representatives, to dispose of their representatives if they wish, to set their own budgets and expenditures, to choose when and if they would fight.
So it’s self-governance, but that power is entrusted into a particular group of people. And in the ancient calibration, it was the middle class that was not the only citizens, but they were considered key to it.
They were the largest group. They lacked the envy of the poor toward the rich or the dependency of the poor on the government. And yet they didn’t try to leverage and use their influence in money that the rich did, leverage government, etc.
Also, it’s very clear from history and from philosophical and political science text that citizens needed a unique space, their own place, a place with borders, whether a city-state or a republic or democracy.
But, they could inculcate these customs and traditions, this civic education. And when they had open migratory, vast areas, that didn’t work … Late Rome was a good example, or even in the American frontier for a while. And they were not on the same page as citizens and it was just chaos.
They also, especially in the United States, there was the idea that citizenship is an idea and it’s not a blood and soil concept, so that your superficial appearance is incidental, not essential to who you are. And that’s a very rare idea. I mean, today I think the only large multiracial democracies that have tried it are Brazil and India and they’re not doing very well.
And citizenship in general is rare, it doesn’t come in until about 2,500 years ago after 5,000 years of civilization. In the world today I think only about half of the 190 nations of the world call themselves republics or democracies. But even then, they don’t have an idea of citizenship like America does.
So it’s a rare thing, it’s very fragile, but it’s absolutely key to enabling the largest group of people to be self-sufficient and to be watchdogs or auditors of government. And out of that matrix, people want to join these types of republics because it ensures personal freedom, material prosperity, allows property to be passed on and it’s sort of the good life, as long as people understand that it’s not the norm of human experience, it takes work.
Bluey: It certainly does. And you write in the book some fascinating things about how in so many parts of the world people do strive to move to places where they can be full citizens like we have here in the United States. And yet, we, as Americans, are experiencing so much change in the world that’s rapidly changing around us in so many ways. Politically, obviously, with the pandemic that we’ve just been dealing with and all of the other changes that government has attempted to impose on our lives. What is at stake for our citizens here in this country today?
Hanson: Well, you have to privilege citizenship. So we’re not going to trust the government that we created, to take one example from contemporary news events, if they allow 2 million people who are not citizens to cross into the United States and those noncitizens can pick and choose which federal laws they wish to obey.
So the first act of an immigrant who’s coming in illegally is to break U.S. law that you or I could not do. If we’re coming in from a different country and we do not have a passport, we’re not going to be able to get past that passport control at an airport or a train station.
Then second is the second thing they do is violate the law by residing here and then they’re not asked to be vaccinated. And yet the people who are patrolling the border or the soldiers who are escorting people from Afghanistan, even if they’ve had COVID, even if they’ve had COVID, they are being mandated by the government to get vaccinated. So, there’s a disequilibrium there.
We had citizens also voting in elections, in local school board elections, and that won’t work either. If you just have residents who are not acquainted with the system, they’re not up on the issues, they don’t have a stake or responsibilities for this particular sacred space, they’re not going to do well. So, just that one issue shows you how tenuous this project is.
And when I talk to people in a very poor community in which I live, they’ll tell me, “Victor, I’m a citizen. My mom’s getting in line for her weekly dialysis and there’s all these people coming in. We don’t know who they are.” Or, “Victor, we took seven years to get advanced placement in our schools, and now they don’t speak English … and we have to go back to bilingual education.” Or, “Victor, I need a good job but all these people are doing tile work or they’re doing roofing off the books and they’re driving down wages.”
So, we’re not putting the citizen’s interest first and that means the citizen will be anemic and the citizen will not be able to audit, check and keep honest their own representatives and much less the administrative state.
Bluey: Professor, the year 2020 presented a number of challenges for American citizens. We began the year with a global pandemic upending our way of life. We witnessed riots in our cities, a spike in crime, and at the end of the year, a contested election. How can we make sense of all of this and overcome so much of the trauma that we’ve recently been through?
Hanson: I think we have to just take a deep breath and say, “We have to reassert citizenship,” and the citizens have to audit their representative. And we can do that in a manifest number of ways.
We’re starting to see it with local school boards, where somebody, somehow, thought that either school bureaucrats or locally elected people are not responsible for the will of the voters who either elected them or they were hired by elected officials through that vote. And yet parents are starting to object and hold them accountable.
I think we really need a lot of emphasis on our elected officials. One good thing that encourages me, when we see these apparatchiks and this huge, let’s say, to take one example, the military-industrial investigative intelligence complex—people with enormous power over all of us that were not elected and how they abused it.
So Gen. [Mark] Milley, just to take one example: a bureaucrat, really, even though he’s a military officer, he violates the chain of command and says he’s going to intervene in cases of use of nuclear weapons perhaps. He calls his Chinese counterpart as if he’s a diplomat. Remember, the law says that he’s only in an advisory capacity.
And then he breaks the Uniform Code of Military Justice by calling his commander in chief at the time a “Hitlerian figure,” “Mein Kampf,” etc. And then he leaks confidential conversations to key reporters that might treat him more favorably. So he’s now under a lot of audit and criticism. I think he will have to resign.
James Comey, who 245 times said under oath, “I don’t remember,” yet he oversaw the use of FBI personnel to do everything from forge a FISA document application to lie under oath to try to disrupt a campaign. I think he’s done for.
Same with James Clapper, who said under oath, “I gave the least untruthful answer.” Or John Brennan, who lied under oath and said, “I’ve never tapped this Senate staffer computer.” Or even Robert Mueller who really abused that 22 months and $40 million budget.
What I’m getting at is that in our recent experience we’ve had enormously powerful people acting as judge, jury, and executioner with the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branch all in one. …
And the people are sort of—and they didn’t have access to the mainstream media or the academic world or the foundations or Wall Street, but just out of their anger, all of those officials were rendered sort of inert, and they’re now suffering from it. And their careers will never be the same.
I think we’re going to have to say to the military, “We don’t think when you retire you should go right onto a defense contractor board. You’re just selling your knowledge of the Pentagon labyrinth to the highest bidder. And that’s not in our interest. You’re not going to do it. We don’t think if you’re going to go on TV and pontificate, that you really need a security clearance so you can wink and nod that you know something that we don’t. You’re no longer a military active officer.”
We need to say to them, “We passed laws, 1947, ’53, 2008, 2006, Goldwater-Nichols, and it said that if you were in uniform and a high-ranking officer, retired or active, you cannot disparage the commander in chief. So if you call your commander in chief Nazi-like or Mussolini or that he should go, even though there’s a scheduled election, but go before that, we’re going to hold you accountable. You should be prosecuted for that.” And I think that’s what the citizen has to do and I think we’re starting to get to that point.
When we see a U.S. senator hounded in a bathroom by two people who, apparently, by their own admission, are not U.S. citizens and they’re here illegally and they boast about it, that caused enormous outrage. And then when we hear that they’re going to be exempt, we say to ourselves, “Well, wait a minute. This is not symmetrical.”
The left is excusing this, but when [Sen.] Chuck Schumer goes outside the Supreme Court and says, “[Justices Neil] Gorsuch, [Brett] Kavanaugh, you’re going to pay,” or [then-Sen.] Jeff Flake is swarmed after the Kavanaugh hearing in an elevator and almost forced by physical intimidation to back off from his support of voting for Kavanaugh, or we see [Sen.] Rand Paul and his wife swarmed and intimidated, that thuggery is not being symmetrically addressed by our officials that report to us.
I’m just giving you a few examples. I can go into Lois Lerner and others. But one of the challenges for the citizen is to say to themselves, “Forty percent of us work for state, local, or federal government, but this federal Washington-New York nexus is where the power that directs these federal employees comes from. And these people are not gods. They’re not deities. They have to follow the law and they have to be equal in the application of the law.” And that’s a good example.
I think another one is we have to tell these revolutionaries we have customs and traditions, we’re not going to change the 233-year-old Electoral College because you don’t like the fact that the blue wall collapsed in one year. We’re not going to get rid of the 150-year nine-person Supreme Court on one vote in the Senate. We’re not going to get rid of the idea of a 50-state union that’s been here 60 years, or 180-year filibuster.
And so far I think the citizens, even though they’ve been under such assault, they’ve been able to make those arguments and persuade enough senators and House members not to change. So I’m kind of optimistic.
The same thing with globalization, I know that we have these two elite coastal strips, that one looks out at the EU and one looks out at these vibrant Asian economies and they sort of confuse economic globalism with the next step of integrating our unique Constitution into some kind of Davos Great Reset world governance. But even that is experiencing a great pushback. Nobody liked it when Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken said he was going to call in the U.N. to adjudicate whether America is, in the contemporary period, racist or it was in its past.
Bluey: Well, thank you for sharing all of those examples. One that I want to follow up on is what you describe happening to Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema. And then just mere days later, the attorney general of the United States, following the lead of a left-wing school boards association, came out and said that parents would be investigated if they showed up at school board meetings and, I guess, spoke out and shared their views as taxpayers and citizens.
What do you make of this contrast between the left kind of excusing the behavior of what happened to Sen. Sinema and yet going after parents who are rightfully concerned about what their kids are learning in school?
Hanson: That’s a very good question, and as I chart these erosions in the power of the citizens, I ask that same question, “What’s behind it? Why are they doing these things?” The left is not the Democratic Party anymore, and it’s not even the Progressive Party. This is a Jacobin, out of the French Revolution, or proto-Bolshevik party.
And they do believe, and I can tell you, 50 years ago when I was a student all I heard was, “Any means necessary,” that sort of cliché from Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X and Sartre. And then it was, “The ends justify the means,” that was kind of a diluted version of a sophisticated statement that Machiavelli once said.
But the point I’m making is, they feel that their ultimate goals of radical equity, equality of us all, are so noble and they’re so utopian that they should, and they alone should, be given the power to do anything necessary to achieve those goals.
So that means take the FBI and sic it on parents that are critical of critical race theory. Or that means the FBI can warp its institutions and violate the law to ensure that a danger to equity or egalitarianism like Donald Trump cannot be elected. Or, Lois Lerner can deny tax-free status to tea party groups that she’s suspicious of.
But they operate under the principle that they’re morally superior to all of us, and therefore they need to have extra advantages, or they don’t have to follow the Constitution, or that we’re too ignorant.
And they even have a vocabulary, as you know. For [former President Barack] Obama, the people that he surveyed, the AP reporters didn’t even try to excuse it. Ben Rhodes said, “I made an echo chamber, and these guys will believe anything, when we sold them the Iran deal.” Jonathan Gruber said the same thing, basically, “We fooled the American people.” But they do that on the assumption that we’re “clingers,” as in Obama. And in Hillary [Clinton’s] vocabulary it was “deplorables” and “irredeemables.” Even [President] Joe Biden’s lexicon is “chumps,” “Gregs,” “crazies.”
They are at war with us ideologically because they know that they do not have a majority of the population, much less the electorate, and the issues that they’re advancing on the border, in Afghanistan, critical race theory, economic policy, energy use do not poll 50%. But to achieve that agenda, then they either want to change the systems, like we just talked about, whether it’s the Electoral College or the filibuster, on and on, or they want to change the demography.
So we have about 45 million people here in the United States that were not born here, a record high. Or we have 27% of the people of California were not born in the United States. Some of them will make great citizens, they follow the trajectory of the melting pot, but a lot won’t because they came in under illegal auspices and they were told that they have certain grievances about the history and the nature of their very hosts that didn’t even invite them in.
Bluey: Well, on that point, let’s talk about something you write in the book. It’s about immigration and the importance of assimilation, particularly how we are failing in many of our current approaches to this issue. What should we be doing differently?
Hanson: If you go back to the history of the United States, when we had difficulty with immigration and when we did not, or you go back to other countries in history, there were kind of pillars of three or four essentials if you want to be a society that welcomes immigrants. I think we all do. They keep us on our toes. They compete with us. They bring in new ideas.
But one of them is that if you’re going to assimilate people, they have to give up their primary identity from where they came and they have to accept a new identity. And that’s an American idea, it’s not based on blood and soil or race, but they have to give up their primary identity.
And second, for that to happen, they have to come in numbers that are manageable. So that one immigrant, when he is walking around New York or Los Angeles, does not see a lot of other immigrants. By osmosis and exposure, they see citizens and they learn protocols from citizens, they don’t just live forever in an enclave.
So numbers are important. Diversity is important. So we don’t take everybody from Ireland. We take them from all over Europe. Not everybody comes from Poland, not everybody comes from Colombia, not everybody comes from Mexico.
But when you have a southern border where people are primarily coming, not all, but primarily coming from Latin America and Mexico, then you don’t have diversity and you’re privileging those people over the people who are waiting legally, and they’re going to be much harder to assimilate because they will constitute a very large tribe. Whereas, we want small tribes that in and of themselves they don’t challenge the major tribes, which are people of all different races that are American.
And then they have to have legality. I mean, you can’t have an asymmetrical system when a doctor’s waiting for five years from South Korea to come in and somebody walks across the border and makes a claim on citizenship that we won’t give the person who played by the rules.
And finally, not all of our immigrants, but we expect some ability to be independent so that they’re not a burden on the host. So either they have to know English or have some capital or some skills. So when they cross that border legally in diverse fashion, there’s also a meritocracy that we say, “These particular immigrants, either because of their work ethic or their skill sets, will not be a burden on U.S. citizens,” which we’re worried more about the U.S. citizen than we are about the immigrant.
Bluey: You compare in the book 2020 to 1948, 1917, and 1968. We believe at The Daily Signal it’s important to look back at history and learn lessons from the past. What do these years have in common?
Hanson: Well, they were years when there were revolutions and people, for a variety of reasons, many a time the upper middle class or the upper upper classes that sponsored them, felt that the system was broken, but they were not going to work within channels.
So let’s take 1968. So the baby boomer, there had been a boomer generation, was very affluent. They’d sort of been pampered by their postwar parents who had gone through the Depression, didn’t want them to go through. But they were year zero revolutionaries.
I mean, they said, “Our revolution is not just taking over the country, it’s changing our fashion. It’s changing the way that people should use drugs. It’s changing sexuality.” It was a totalitarian cultural, social, political, economic revolution.
And in one sense, they fail because … I guess they alienated the majority of the population. But they learned something from it, they said, “Never again will we be throwing rocks at the Pentagon from the outside,” or, “Never again will we be sitting in the president’s office yelling at him. Next time we come, we’re going to be the president, we’re going to be the general, we’re going to be the CEO, we’re going to be the principal of the high school, we’re going to be the major mega Hollywood star—no more John Waynes or Jimmy Stewarts.” And that’s what they did.
So this time, this revolution is a ’60s-like revolution in its totality, but it’s more successful or more dangerous because all of the major levers of influence and power and money are sort of woke.
The other dates are important because it reminds us that if it’s 1793 or 1848, they don’t necessarily work. The Jacobins were defeated, and the revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848, they were defeated for the most part, the anarchists.
And the same thing did not happen, however, during the Bolsheviks. Everybody wrote the Bolsheviks off, they were kind of a cute little thing that the Russian aristocracy thought, “You know what? I’ll give them money. I kind of like the idea they don’t like my czarist friends. And even if they did win, I can buy them off.” And that was a fatal mistake.
So, I think we have to make no mistake about it. I know that these revolutionaries are careerists, I know they come from the top down for the most part. I know that Patrisse Cullors, that Marxist co-founder of BLM, has four homes, lives in all-white Topanga Canyon. Professor [Ibram X.] Kendi is charging $20,000 for something that we’re doing now, Zooming for an hour, a half-hour. But they’re serious. They too believe in year zero, their year zero is 1619. They too believe in Trotskyisation, to wipe out the names of streets or schools or topple statues in the middle of the night. So they’re holistic and they’re very dangerous.
Bluey: You mentioned earlier they also want to radically change our institutions, whether it be packing the Supreme Court, ending the Senate filibuster, abolishing the Electoral College. And it seems that the Democratic Party is willing to just go along with a lot of these things. They’ve embraced them. What has happened to the Democratic Party? Is there anybody left from that side of that political perspective who will stand against the left and help put an end to this?
Hanson: No, because we can see right now that if you’re [Sen.] Joe Manchin and you’re on a vote, you’re going to be surrounded not by right-wing thugs, but by people of your own party.
And if you’re Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema, you’re not going to get a bunch of people who said, “You’re too liberal for Arizona. We’re going to chase you into the bathroom and take pictures, which is a felony, but we’re going to do it. And you know what? When you get on the airplane—and we know that the federal aviation law is very strict now during this pandemic, doesn’t matter to us. We’re morally superior. And our noble ends justify any means necessary to achieve them.” That was a big ’60s idea, “Any means necessary.” “And so, we’re going to disrupt a flight and hector you as you sit.”
So there’s nobody in that party, because if there were anybody in that party, these Jacobins would do what they’re doing now with Sen. Sinema or Manchin. And so that’s very important for all of us to understand, that they keep saying, “Well, the Republican Party is different.” No, the Republican Party, 90% of it’s the same. The only difference is some of their agenda is more attuned to the middle class than it ever has been. But the left is Jacobin, it’s a Bolshevik party now. It does not believe in free speech, calls it “hate speech,” and does not believe in due process, they feel that’s racist or sexist.
How did it change? Why did it change? I think a lot of it had to do with 40 or 50 million people coming in the country. And the left thought that if we can convince them the salad bowl, that the melting pot is inferior, the salad bowl is much better, they can retain their primary cultural identity or racial ethnic identity.
I think part of it was the $1.7 trillion in student debt, and so we had all of these students—I discussed this in the book. They’re not getting married at ages just 30 years ago. They’re not having children. They’re not buying homes. They’re doing exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about, their prolonged adolescence. And they feel that after their kind of shotty education in liberal arts, that they deserve a particular salary, a particular status, and it’s not there and they’re angry.
So there’s a lot of contributors to this weird Democratic Jacobinism. But it doesn’t really matter what caused it. We have to defeat it because they’re very serious that they want to remake America in an image that the Founders would’ve never even imagined.
Bluey: And you, living in California, see a lot of this before the rest of the country. What is your warning for the rest of America? And by the way, I should mention that when you write about things like this and what you see in California, they are among our most popular columns at The Daily Signal.
Hanson: Well, thank you. I think in California, we’re what the left wants everything to be. We had about 7 to 10 million middle-class people, entrepreneurs, 7/11 owners who left. And then over the last 30 years, we had about 15 million, many of them illegally, of the poorest people in the world come into California. And then we had the largest concentration of wealth in the history of civilization, about $5 trillion of market capitalization. I’m talking Facebook and Apple and Google and Oracle.
So we put all of that together and the coastal strip from La Jolla to Berkeley was sort of, “We have Caltech, we have Stanford, we have Berkeley, we have USC, we have UCLA. We’re the elite. We have perfect weather. We are very densely populated. We’re going to make all these rules that utopians never had a chance to. So, whether it’s climate, we don’t need to be build reservoirs. Oh, we’re not going to build those awful highways. Oh, we’re going to let the teachers unions take over so our schools will be more enlightened.”
And then, the middle class was not there to fight it. We got a 13% tax rate, we got the highest sales tax, highest gas taxes. I think we’re in the bottom five of school ratings, we’re about rated worst in infrastructure. So the middle class left and they were happy they left.
So now we have a medieval futile society of a very wealthy group of people along the coast in the keep. And then we have the peasants in the north, the foothills, inland empire, and the great Central Valley. And so, nobody that is not a member of the keep or the aristocracy can afford a house at $1,000 a square foot.
And they will not build homes or will not cut timber or they will not mine ores or they will not produce natural gas. They want other people to do that in other states because they’ve evolved beyond that. But the other people haven’t, and so they say to the peasant, “You don’t really have any rights. You’ve got lousy schools, you live out there in peasant land. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to vote this way, this way, this way, this way. Because after all, we give you Medi-Cal—half the births in California are Medi-Cal. We don’t mind if you’re homeless. We have … anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 people living on the streets and we’ll take care of you. It’ll be a reduced state, but we don’t want you to be a grub-grabbing upwardly mobile middle class. That middle class wants things like Winnebagos or jet skis or snowmobiles, or they don’t have the romance that you guys do, the distant poor. But they also don’t have our culture.”
So when you get a society that hates the middle class, and they do in California, then it’s very dangerous. It’s very valuable for the rest of the country because they took paradise and they took it and they turned it into hell and other countries that Californians said were hell, Texas, Tennessee, Idaho, they took those very harsh climates, in some cases, and turned them into paradise. And that’s what’s the irony, that Californians are leaving paradise to go to former hells that are a paradise because their former paradise is a hell.
Bluey: Fascinating. One final question for you, sir. Despite all of the challenges that we face, in California and across the rest of the country, you write in “The Dying Citizen” that you are hopeful about the future. Why do you believe our fellow citizens will ultimately make the right choices?
Hanson: I think there’s something that is in American character that is still there, that we’re a frontier people, we’re free thinking, we’re very independent, and we’re very hard to control and they’re trying to control us.
So in closing, very briefly, who would’ve ever thought that Mexican American communities that for decades supported open borders and family reunification along the Texas border are electing Republican municipal officials and local officials because they don’t want open borders? Who would’ve ever thought in the town that I live in about 50% of all Hispanic males voted to recall [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom and the number of all Mexican American citizens in California that voted to recall was just about where whites were, about 43% to 44%?
So, this old matrix that if you are not white then the wealthy white liberal coastal class will tell you, “You’re a victim and you’re oppressed and we’re the only salvation,” that’s breaking down. We’re starting to get it.
And then on the other side, the Republican Party was very easily charactered as Mitt Romney’s wealthy, white, Bain Capital, golfing, blue-stocking party. And that’s a very unfair characterization, I understand that. It’s a character because in many ways he was a good man, but people did not want to vote for that, 6 or 7 million people did not want to vote for that in the Midwest alone.
What I’m getting at is that the Republican Party now is addressing issues like China cheats and we’re not under the guise of free market capitalism and free trade out of the postwar era. We’re not going to let them cheat, cheat, cheat and destroy your job. Or, we’re not going to let in 2 million people and make sure your mom can’t go to the dialysis clinic in Fresno. We’re not going to do that to you. Or, we’re not going to go into an optional war over in the Middle East and target a particular, I shouldn’t say target, but a particular rubric of American is more likely to die there, the lower middle class. And we’re going to develop energy, and that energy is going to make us self-sufficient and we’re not going to need the Middle East.
So there’s an agenda developing that is not contrary to Republican free market limited government, but it actually enhances it because it also adds a new dimension that we’re trying to be the party of the middle class and doing practical things. We’re not going to be Jeb Bush and say, “Oh, immigration is an act of love,” i.e., “My employer friends want cheap labor to undercut American wages.” I’m very confident that there’s going to be a new populous, nationalist Republican Party, and it’s going to be very inclusive and it’s going to make the left very scared.
Bluey: Victor Davis Hanson, thank you for writing the book, thank you for sharing your perspective with The Daily Signal. Again, it’s called “The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America.” Thank you, sir.
Hanson: Thank you.
Bluey: And you can find his columns at DailySignal.com if you’d like to read more each week.