Can We Do Anything About America’s Decline?
By: Victor Davis Hanson
April 17, 2023
Twenty-first-century America was on a trajectory of gradual decline—until it began to implode.
Was the accelerant the COVID-19 pandemic and unhinged lockdowns? Or was the catalyst of the woke revolution fueled by the 2020 summer of exempted rioting, looting, arson, and violence? Or was it perhaps the deranged fixation on removing Donald Trump from the presidency and destroying the rule of law in the process? Or all that and more?
Now with the election of Joe Biden, what had been a fast-tracked decline has accelerated at such an astonishing rate we can scarcely recognize our country.
Our largest cities are becoming uninhabitable—dilapidated, dangerous, and dysfunctional. The challenge is not just rampant crime, but the realization that if you, the citizen, are stabbed, shot, or beaten up on the street, the perpetrators may well be exempt from most punishments. And the victim either will be forgotten in his misery or, indeed, blamed for bringing such violence upon himself.
Urban schools are not places of instruction anymore. That fact is accepted by teachers’ unions, whose operative principle seems to be that the more hopeless the idea of educating urban youth is understood to be, the less burdensome the workload, and the greater their hazardous duty pay.
Urban chain stores are closing down on the principle that if police cannot or will not stop consumer violence and theft, then consumers there should not have any store to buy anything, anyway. If there is no store, how can it be looted or shop-lifted?
The only mystery remaining is how long these Democrat-controlled, racially charged, and corrupt municipalities can sustain their budgets and pension commitments with increasingly declining revenue. One can tax the well, and perhaps even gouge them as California does. But one cannot insult and ridicule them in the process. Being highly taxed is one thing, being highly taxed while hated is quite another.
How eerie that medievalism—defecting, urinating, fornicating, injecting in the street — is relabeled “homelessness”— as if the problem is merely a shortage of apartments or tent cities. Somehow cities developed the notion that it was crueler to be told not to pull down one’s pants and defecate in the street than it was for a pedestrian to step into infectious human excrement.
In the next five years, either cities will seek new governance to reduce taxes, break up municipal unions, mandate charter schools, restore police funding and manpower, recalibrate pensions, and prosecute criminals and corrupt officials—or Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and a score of others will become Detroit.
One of the strangest phenomena amid our current debility are the millions of affluent leftists and liberals who have fled their unworkable, now unlivable blue-run, but naturally beautiful cities like San Francisco or Portland. They seem to lack an abstract recognition of why they are leaving, or why and how their newly chosen destinations are so different and therefore so inviting to them. Is their motto, “I am fleeing what I created, but I still hate those who created what I want”?
To have a “border problem,” one must have a border. The United States has no southern border.
Upwards of 7 million illegal entries since the Biden inauguration are proof enough of that tragedy. Mexico brags that 40 million have come into the United States. It urges them to vote Democratic. And it relies on still more illegal entries to ensure yearly increases in its current $60 billion in remittance income sent from its expatriates in the United States. The donors apparently grow fonder of Mexico—the more they are safely distant from it.
America could close the border tomorrow and actually “make Mexico pay for the wall” by simply slapping a 10 percent export tax on all remittances sent to Mexico. Or we could make it illegal to send money out of the country if one is receiving federal subsidies and aid. Or we could fine employers for hiring those who are here illegally. Or, as a deterrent to future illegal entries, we could immediately deport all who illegally entered and reside in the United States—if they came within the last five years, if they have a criminal record, or if they are not working and are on public assistance.
The result would not just be a restoration of American sovereignty and a decline in spiraling social service costs. There would follow better relations with Latin America and Mexico. Both treat us with contempt as a hectoring weakling because, unlike themselves, we do not believe in our own physical space, our own borders, and our freedom to do as we please rather than what others tell us to do.
Abroad, our allies and neutrals are distancing themselves from America — France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, Turkey, and South Korea — on the Ukraine War, China, the dollar as the global currency, and our popular culture.
Why? Our increasingly former friends conclude it is now dangerous to ally openly with the United States for a variety of reasons:
1) They see the once indomitable United States as weak—as a possible liability rather than an asset. After China’s balloon surveillances, the Afghanistan flight, the inability to achieve strategic victory after intervening in Iraq and Libya, the current embarrassing Pentagon leak, the Anchorage mini-summit, the woke obsessions in the U.S. military, and the inability to ensure its military is well-staffed, apolitical, and equipped with the world’s most plentiful and cutting-edge weaponry, allies assume that the United States will not necessarily win any intervention it undertakes but may well drag them down with it.
2) The United States may suddenly turn on an ally, demonize it, and refuse to meet with its leaders, as Biden gratuitously maligned Saudi Arabia and Israel.
3) America asks allies to join its cause of the day regardless of whether it is in those nations’ own interest. So South Korea, Japan, India, or Egypt do not believe boycotting Russian oil or openly selling Ukraine weapons is necessarily in their interests.
4) Our woke revolution is so volatile, irrational, and unpredictable that allies never know when they will be accused of being homophobic, transphobic, racist, or sexist and treated accordingly—or whether the United States will be eternally crippled by internal woke dissension and civil unrest.
5) The allies do not believe the United States can keep secrets, especially after the latest leak. From the Dobbs draft leak and the Comey leak of a confidential conversation with President Trump to the Vindman-Ciaramella-Schiff impeachment psychodrama leaks to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, leakers and “whistleblowers” feel there are few consequences to leaking classified information (unless it is embarrassing to leftist administrations), or indeed leaking to the media to overturn institutions and presidencies.
America must reform the entire Pentagon process of spending and appropriations. It must end woke and identity politics, and ideological indoctrination, and return to a meritocracy. It should prohibit retiring generals and admirals from revolving into defense contractor boards and lobbyists. It should finally enforce the Uniform Code of Military Justice that prohibits active and retired high-ranking officers from publicly attacking their current commander-in-chief. It should charge leakers with felonies and prosecute perjury. Had the government done that with Andrew McCabe, John Brennan, James Comey, and James Clapper the accruing deterrence would have discouraged others with lower profiles.
Biden is on schedule to run up a $2 trillion annual deficit, adhering to the Bush, Obama, and Trump legacy of unfettered spending. In Biden’s case, he insanely printed over $4 trillion at a time when labor participation rates were already in decline, COVID-suppressed demand was returning, and transportation and production interruptions were reducing supply. He raised taxes, increased regulations, cut projected increases in gas and oil production, and canceled energy projects. The result was the highest inflation in 40 years, near-record energy costs, soaring interest rates, the largest modern percentage of debt to GDP at 130 percent, the greatest debt in our history at $33 trillion, and stagnant GDP. All that and more prompt the current Chinese-led effort to dethrone the dollar as the world’s currency.
The remedies are agreed upon, but the needed medicine is feared more than the disease. Our elected leaders know we must, but never even attempt to, cut spending, reduce the size of the federal government radically, simplify the tax code and reduce taxes, deregulate, recalibrate Medicare and Social Security, develop our mineral, gas, and oil resources, and require labor participation for able-bodied entitlement recipients.
Never have Americans spent more on K-12 and higher education and never have they received less in return. The education industry is woke and nonmeritocratic. Research is diverted, sidetracked, and polluted by ideological commissars, endangering the U.S. lead in science, math, engineering, and the professions. Even scientists have become deductive, starting out with a preconceived woke conclusion they feel will win influence, grants, and notoriety and then scrambling to warp evidence to fit it.
The solutions are straightforward. Tax university endowment income—and lots of superfluous and harmful programs will vanish.
Stop federal student loan guarantees, and soaring tuition and room-and-board costs will decline to the annual rate of inflation once universities must guarantee their own student loans.
Require universities that receive federal funds of any sort to honor existing laws from the Bill of Rights to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That would end segregated dorms and graduations. The next time administrators at Stanford or San Francisco State either aid or ignore student efforts to shout down or disrupt speakers and suppress free expression, their institutions should quickly be fined by the U.S. government or have their federal funding yanked.
If SAT and ACT entrance tests are being abolished, then they could be rebooted as exit tests required for a bachelor’s degree analogous to a bar exam. With such minimum standards, we might ascertain what, if anything, students had learned upon graduation. College graduates should be able to choose between an academic master’s degree or the school of education credential to teach K-12. Most would flee the latter option. Right-to-teach laws and the end to mandatory teacher union dues, along with the end of tenure and its replacement by five-year contracts with required minimum standards of achievement, would all bring some accountability to what is now an entirely unaccountable profession.
Race is no longer an accurate barometer of either victimhood or legitimate grievance. If “affirmative” action were to continue, it should be based entirely on class considerations, not the current system of Elizabeth Warrenesque fakery or delusions that the elite children of Eric Holder, the Obamas, the Duchess of Sussex, or LeBron James are in some need of compensatory privilege for college admissions, appointments, or hiring.
Because America is now multiracial, with untold ethnic and racial agendas, and countless and contorted collective grievances, it is impossible to sort out victimizers and victims. Junk the entire illiberal and patently illegal system of racial discrimination, and there would be an organic return to merit, and with it, race would become incidental, not essential to American identities. After 1964, it seems Orwellian that liberal institutions could continue to assign dorms by race, segregate graduations, and impose racial requisites to participate in special programs.
America’s former strength—the most transparent, accurate, and trustworthy elections in the world—has descended into its greatest liability. In the space of a mere eight years, and especially in reaction to radical political changes made under the cover of the COVID lockdown, we have gone from 70 percent of the electorate in most states voting on election day to a mere 30 percent. Yet the ballot rejection rate somehow diminished, with the flood of non-Election-Day ballots that overwhelmed accustomed audit and verification.
Election night is a mere construct. It is mostly meaningless. Local, state, and federal election results are stalled and descend into days, weeks, and sometimes even months of bickering, counter charges of ballot tampering and fraud, ballot harvesting and curing, and a loss of confidence in the integrity of the final result. Debates mean little anymore, once a large portion of the electorate has already voted. No wonder deceased candidates can win. Gaffes are now determined by whether they occur before or after the majority of voters have cast their ballots.
There should be a national uniform standard that allows states to set their ballot procedures—as long as they result in 70 percent of the electorate voting in person on election day.
America is in a similar position to where it was in 1861, 1929, 1941, and 1968—only perhaps worse, given in all those cases, there was at least a president and Congress that identified and reacted to the crisis, whereas today our elected government is what caused the crisis.