The erosion of citizenship

Today many condemn the idea of nationalism by connecting it to race hatred (e.g., white nationalism). But historically, the modern nation-state has proven uniquely suitable to preserving individual rights.

The American nation in particular was successful in uniting individuals of different races, ethnic backgrounds, and creeds into one people based on shared principles, a unique physical space, and a common national story.

Our nation is the best example in human history of positive nationalism.

The key to this benign nationalism is American citizenship, based on an understanding of American exceptionalism and formed by the American melting pot. But today, our citizenship is eroding and, along with it, American nationalism in the positive sense is disappearing.

American citizenship is eroding in three ways.

First, we are blurring the line between mere residents and citizens. We have between 45-50 million non-native-born residents in the United States today — the largest absolute number we’ve ever had.

There’s no legal problem with the 30 million of them who have green cards or have acquired citizenship — although even 30 million is a challenge for the American melting pot to assimilate and integrate.

But we also have, according to a recent Yale and MIT study, about 20 million people who are here illegally. In regard to them, the classical ingredients of American citizenship — the right to leave or enter the country as one pleases, for example, or to vote in elections, or to reside here as long as one pleases — are being blurred.

Where I live, in California, if you’re here illegally, you can de facto go back and forth across the border as you wish. In San Francisco, you can vote in some school board elections (the same is under consideration in some places in New England). And as we see with the DACA program, illegal residents can de facto live in the U.S. indefinitely.

We are becoming a country of tribes.

Some policies even discriminate against citizens. An illegal resident in California who is charged with a crime is not subject to federal immigration law to the full extent, whereas a citizen who flies into Los Angeles from overseas without a passport will be detained.

If you are in California as an illegal resident, you can obtain a driver’s license as citizens have in the past; whereas for citizens, starting next year, there will be an extra burden: to travel by commercial air, they will have to provide at least three sources of proof of citizenship to obtain a valid ID — given the apparent devaluation of the driver’s license.

People who come to the U.S. illegally and in great numbers usually do not have the degree of investment citizens do in our constitutional documents and are often unacquainted with our national story. Candidates from south of the border today fly into California’s Central Valley to campaign. Illegal residents vote in their home countries’ elections — and yet are unacquainted with political issues and candidates here in the U.S.

To avoid a fragmentation of society based on racial and ethnic chauvinism takes an extra effort to keep the melting pot working. We’re no longer making that effort. Indeed, we’re doing the opposite, encouraging diversity rather than unity.

Second, we’re becoming a country of tribes. The idea of multi-racialism — the notion that we’re of different races but we share a common culture — is eroding.

To avoid a fragmentation of society takes an extra effort. We are no longer making that effort. We are doing the opposite.

At many colleges and universities today, you can choose in advance the racial background of your roommate. Campuses have “safe spaces” that are reserved for people of particular races. There are dorms where students segregate according to race. Ethnic studies departments thrive by emphasizing racial exceptionalism.

Do we wonder why Elizabeth Warren chose to be a Native American, which, according to her own logic — the power of white privilege and systemic racism — would put her at a disadvantage? The answer is that she sought a careerist advantage. And Harvard was happy to comply. The law school bragged that she was its first “woman of color” faculty member.

I went to a grammar school that was about 90 percent Mexican-American. Some people who I went to first grade with later changed their names from Juan to John and dropped the accent on their last names. Now in their 60s, they’re changing back to Juan and adding back the accents.

Why? Because there is now a disadvantage in identifying as an un-hyphenated American, and an advantage to belonging to a tribe. And the danger is that this logic of tribalism leads to the kind of social breakup and civil discord that we saw in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Iraq.

Third, the middle class, which had been encouraged and celebrated since the time of the American Founding, is now under sustained attack.

Tribalism leads to the kind of social breakup and civil discord that we saw in Rwanda, Yugaslavia and Iraq.

A solid, property-owning middle class anchors the nation. Traditionally, its members show the sobriety and judgment to achieve autonomy. They don’t look to government for help. They stand as a barrier against both property redistribution and crony capitalism.

Today, America’s middle class is threatened. Homeownership is down to about 62 percent from 71 percent just over ten years ago. The percentage of a family budget that goes to housing has risen from 20-30 percent in the 1950s to 30-40 percent today, especially in coastal corridors.

Middle class wages, until an annual increase of three percent under President Trump, had been frozen for ten years. And we have an aggregate $1.6 trillion in student debt.

If the middle class continues to erode, we will become a nation of peasants and oligarchs. In California, more than one out of five people live below the poverty line — despite the fact that California has one of the highest number of zip codes of America’s most affluent people and the highest number of billionaires.

If you drive through Palo Alto, you’ll see people living in RVs because they can’t afford to buy or rent a home — and these are people working for Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Oracle, and Apple, with a total market capitalization of nearly $4 trillion.

Additionally, we are seeing a formal assault on the Constitution by our elites.

Almost every single Democratic candidate for president was in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, which is in the Constitution to ensure equal representation to people living outside big cities, and to prevent the splintering of the electorate into several small parties.

Consider the nullification of federal law through the creation of sanctuary cities, in direct defiance of the immigration statutes. (Of course, such nullification seems to go only one way. Otherwise, imagine how our elites would respond if the people of Provo, Utah, decided within their municipal jurisdiction to nullify federal handgun registration or the Endangered Species Act.)

We are seeing a formal assault on the Constitution by our elites.

There is also a growing academic attack on the mode of electing the U.S. Senate — “Why should North Dakota or Wyoming have the same number of U.S. senators as New York?” progressives ask, in their eagerness to make U.S. senators proportionally elected in the manner of House members.

This insidious assault on the Constitution results from the fact that popular elections haven’t been going the Left’s way, and the Left believes that its superior moral agenda justifies using any means necessary.

Ancient authors from Plato and Aristotle to Petronius and Tacitus have suggested that affluence combined with leisure paradoxically creates a laxity that leads to the kind of societal and institutional disintegration we are currently seeing.

Another major ingredient of our current crisis is the failure of our education system to offer disinterested instruction, following from the post-1960s takeover by the Left of our colleges and universities.

The assault on the Constitution results from the fact that elections haven’t been going the Left’s way.

In response, we need to support colleges that continue to teach the principles and practices of liberty. We must support policies that recognize the distinction between citizens and non-citizens and that bolster the middle class. And we need to defend the Constitution, our last great hope to ensure American continuity and security.


(The author of the above is Victor Davis Hanson. He is the Wayne and Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History at Hillsdale College. This piece was taken from Imprimis, which is published by Hillsdale, a superlative institution of higher learning. Subscribing to Imprimis is free. I highly recommend it.)

13 thoughts on “The erosion of citizenship

  1. Interesting piece, a little lengthy for my morning cup of tea. I do believe there is a movement towards home ownership again, certainly out in the suburbs the housing is booming. People are fleeing the major cities in droves apparently. Housing prices are going up and homes for sale are hard to come by.


    1. Marco: As for housing, you are fortunate not to live in California or New York or Detroit or Chicago …

      As for suburbs, Sleepy Joe, i.e. his handlers, want to get rid of them. I’m still trying to understand that one.


  2. It’s rather sad that the Left wants to turn the USA into a European social welfare state. My guess is that they don’t fully understand what that entails. My ex-housemate, a vociferous Bernie supporter, extols the benefits of the European healthcare system, but when pressed, really has no idea how it functions. He’s equally ignorant of all of the restrictions there are on free speech in various European countries. Leftists don’t know about “Count Dankula’s” arrest by the British police for crime of offensive humor (his Nazi Saluting pug). They also seem to have forgotten that hate speech is free speech. Which is to say that only offensive speech needs protecting. No one is going to jail for extoling the virtues of the current government, for commending the country’s technological progress, or for honoring the troops. It’s only that which is highly offensive that needs protection, and the Left seems entirely oblivious to that simple, eternal fact.

    Clearly there are growing problems in American society, and no side has the definitive answer as to what’s the cause, nor as to what’s the cure. But I’d say that at least part of the problem is that we have strayed from constitutional values, we’ve allowed too much concentration of business power, either via endless industry consolidation (think media, airlines, financials), or via natural monopolies which have grown too powerful (Google, Twitter, et al) by being unchecked by the state. And we have institutions like the Federal Reserve, who repeatedly bail out banks and financiers by doing things like bolstering the prices of residential real estate, and preventing the creative destruction phase of capitalism where inefficient businesses fail or move into stronger hands.

    Fixing those problems would return us to a society more like that envisioned in the constitution, and would enhance freedoms. It’s rather sad that few on the left, and really too few on the right, see it that way.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we’ve been a beneficiary of some of the ills outlined above and have mixed feelings.


  3. Dear lord, now your readers are writing doctoral dissertations as well.

    I would say to the responder Kim, there are answers out there. They are right in front of our eyes. However, the left is simply too dumb and absorbed in their hatred for this man as well as for the country to see what the answers really are.

    Freedom, liberty, freedom to choose the life you want to lead, freedom to protect yourself in your home from harm. That’s what the answer is, always has been. The left only sees free s***, free healthcare, free education, free housing, free money. But nothing is free. Someone has to pay the piper. Somebody forgot to tell the left about that part.


  4. Several years ago up in the great white north I answered a phone survey from the government. They asked many things, but what threw off the interviewer was that I just considered myself Canadian, no other country hyphenated, just Canadian.

    Immigration was good, but Illegal imagination was bad. That was another thing he had a hard time with. I said if you don’t like the laws we have, you vote and change them. That is what elections are for. He asked me if I would be interested in doing a follow-up interview. I said sure, but I didn’t think he would call me, and they didn’t, surprise, surprise.

    It always made me wonder why people would move to the big city and then wonder why there are so many people there, and why it costs so much to live there, housing being the most expensive. Most big cities will give you a bus ticket to move along.


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