Editor’s note: What follows is an excerpt from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book “The Dying Citizen:How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America.” It can be purchased here.
The US Constitution — the foundation of the oldest constitutional republic still in existence today — was primarily designed to protect personal freedom, property, and individual liberty from both oppressive government elites and periodic mob frenzies. The American Revolution, unlike the later French Revolution, was intended neither to ensure
mandated equality of result (what we now call “equity”) nor to extend state control over the private lives and thoughts of citizens, much less to create a communitarian ideal of citizenry. Few, if any, of the Founders embraced what the later French Revolutionaries would champion as égalité and fraternité.
This American foundational idea of citizen control of government on major matters of life and death, however, is waning. And given that the Constitution is difficult to amend, reformists are constantly seeking evolutionary avenues to render it inert or to change it by unconstitutional means. These “evolutionaries,” who wish to move beyond the Framers’ ideas, assume that the public has lost confidence in its ability to control its own republic or now prefers a radical, equality-of-result democracy to its own prior 234 years of constitutional history.
Indeed, rarely in American history have so many powerful and influential Americans become so unhappy with the US Constitution and its emphases on liberty and individual freedom rather than on government-mandated equality. Most critics see the need for a far more powerful presidency to ensure that an obstructionist Congress does not stymie progressive issues such as immigration expansion, climate change, and income redistribution.
Political scientist Terry Moe, for example, argues that the Founders “designed a government for a tiny agrarian nation — and they assumed that, as society changed, future generations would change the Constitution to meet new and evolving needs. But future generations didn’t do that. Instead, they put it on a pedestal to be worshipped.” Democracy scholar Larry Diamond has argued that to ensure fairness in American presidential and national elections, we need both to abolish the Electoral College and to adopt ranked-choice voting (RCV), that is, allowing citizens to rank their preferences for multiple candidates, as a way to green-light further changes in how we conduct elections. Of the latter, he argues, “Once RCV is adopted, with its greater incentives to moderation and diversity in our electoral process, other democratic reforms may become more achievable.” Such constitutional critics assume that as the nation constantly becomes more just, fair, and humane — reflecting the natural moral progression of human nature — it also needs to rewrite its charters to improve on the blinkered documents of the late eighteenth century.
Of course, throughout American history there have been lots of both necessary and questionable legal and formal attempts to redefine citizenship as set out in the Constitution — well beyond the formal efforts of adding twenty-seven amendments, the last in 1992. Federal and state courts, the administrative state, and presidents wielding sweeping executive orders have all become would-be modernizers. All felt the eighteenth-century Constitution’s singular devotion to liberty hindered the natural progression to an equality of result. And all presidents, on the Left and Right, increasingly feel that executive orders should augment or even replace congressional legislation, especially when a president does not enjoy party majorities in the Congress.
Yet never have such efforts of the evolutionaries been so focused and holistic as they are today. Original constitutional avenues for amendments are now often seen as too cumbersome to effect change, given the need for three-quarters of the states to ratify what two-thirds of the Congress has previously enacted. Instead, the subtext for radical reformers remains, why let old white men of a bygone age continue, from their graves, to impose their ossified values on a far more enlightened, ethnically and racially diverse, and knowledgeable twenty-first-century nation? Why not allow a simple majority of Americans or a panel of distinguished jurists to fix what is obviously irrelevant or wrong in the Constitution? After all, the naive and blinkered Founders assumed that human nature is fixed and constant rather than fluid, which — with enough mandated correct education, funding, and technology — would be malleable and subject to radical improvement in its expression.
So the latest discussions about “updating” American institutions are not matters of adding a twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth, or thirtieth constitutional amendment. Instead, they are far more structural and cover everything from admitting new states to redefining the way we elect presidents. And the efforts represent an assault on the origins, spirit, and current status of our constitutional republic. Progressives no doubt would redefine a citizen, first, as a sort of judge, legislator, and executive through more direct elections and plebiscites and, only second, as a constitutional republican if he does not get his way and needs to fall back on constitutional redress through the courts.
The overarching theory of social scientists and historians is the shift from an “equality-of-opportunity” to an “equality-of-outcome” society. This transformation during the New Deal was the requisite for the entire 1960s continuance under the Great Society programs and their redefinition of civil rights to encompass government-ensured economic parity through higher taxes, income redistribution, massive new government spending, and forced proportional representation by race and gender in hiring and admission. Up until then, Americans traditionally had been open to new and stronger laws protecting equality of opportunity but were wary of the destructiveness of envy, the ancient fuel of an equality-of-result society that saw government punish its more successful citizens. As Alexis de Tocqueville warned of upward mobility and the resentment it incurs in a democracy, “In a democracy private citizens see a man of their own rank in life who becomes possessed of riches and power in a few years; this spectacle excites their surprise and envy, and they are led to inquire how the person who was yesterday their equal is today their ruler. To attribute his rise to his talents or his virtues is unpleasant; for it is tacitly to acknowledge that they are themselves less virtuous and less talented than he was.”
As we will see, the mostly elite and formal efforts to change the Constitution — whether by systematically nullifying federal laws, using the courts and the bureaucracy to circumvent the will of Congress, or ignoring or replacing parts of the Constitution itself — share the same ideological geneses that have led to the ad hoc diminution of the middle class, the conflation of citizenship with residency, and the multicultural tribalism discussed previously. The common theme once more is an effort to erode traditions and laws in order to mandate equity and to empower an alliance of the elite and the poor at the expense of the power and influence of the middle class.
Excerpted from “The Dying Citizen:How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America” by Victor Davis Hanson. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” from Basic Books.