Victor Davis Hanson on America: Decline or Renaissance? *UPDATED*

I did something very nice yesterday:  I attended a luncheon at which Victor Davis Hanson spoke.  I’ve read his work for years, and knew that I would be in the presence of an intellectual giant.  Hanson is an expert in both Classic and military history (not to mention Classic military history).  He is also an acute observer of the American political and social scene.

There’s always a risk going in that a Classics scholar’s delivery will dry and dusty, and heavily larded with Latinisms and allusions to long-forgotten historic figures known only to those who have studied them closely.  Hanson is not that scholar.  Instead, he is the professor you always wished you could have had in college.

Hanson is a focused speaker who uses his unusually wide body of knowledge to support a carefully constructed, well-thought out narrative.  He doesn’t waste words.  He also doesn’t use sesquipedalian words to impress — nor does he need to.  He’s impressive enough speaking in straightforward English.  (And yes, it was my little joke to use a ridiculously long word to highlight the fact that Hanson eschews ponderous obfuscation.  Yup.  Another little — very little — joke.)

So what did Hanson speak about?  He spoke about the cusp on which America now finds herself.  On the one hand, we see a world in disarray, both at home and abroad.  On the other hand, America still towers over other nations when it comes to her people, her resources, and her accomplishments.  If America is unable to succeed it will be because we will have followed in the path of other successful nations that disintegrated from within.

Hanson opened by detailing all the facts that should have responsible people worried.  The situation abroad his grim.  In 2008, Barack Obama promised direct dialog with the North Koreans, Syria, and Iran.  Since that time, North Korea has produced a video imagining a joyful future in which North Korea destroys us with a nuclear attack; Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war, with both sides hating America only slightly less than they hate each other; and Iran gleefully thumbs its nose at the world as it continues work on its nuclear arsenal.

Even as the world’s bad actors — Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, etc. — work to buff their nuclear credentials, Obama is showing his post-election flexibility by promising Russia that America will unilaterally downsize her nuclear arsenal.  Those countries within the geographic radius of predatory nuclear nations are (rightly) becoming extremely worried.

In the Middle East, Obama has embraced a bifurcated policy.  On the one hand, he leads from behind so that countries such as Egypt, Mali, and Libya can fall into the hands of radical Islamists.  On the other hand, his visceral dislike for Netanyahu and Israel gives him an aggressive stance towards that small, democratic nation.

Not only has the Nobel-prize winning President failed to bring about world peace, he’s presided over some of the worst killing in America’s recent wars.  Obama has overseen the deaths of as many American troops in four years as George Bush did in eight (not that we hear anything about that from the media).  Moreover, the same president who said that it was inhumane and immoral to waterboard three known terrorists has recently announced that he has the unilateral power to use drones to kill American citizens.

I was gratified to hear Hanson make the same point I made during George Bush’s presidency — that his “wild man” persona, no matter how ill-deserved, was an effective deterrent to thugs, because they did not know how he would act under provocation.  Obama, though, brings absolutely reliability to the process:  When the chips are down . . . he does nothing.  This means, Hanson says, that “we’re in a very dangerous period abroad.”  Oh, joy.

Things at home aren’t any more cheerful.  Hanson, who has an impressive mastery of facts, ran through those gloomy numbers and statistics about the debt, the deficit, the unemployment rate, and the usually flat, but occasionally shrinking, economy.

The only bright spot in Obama’s America is the Left’s/media’s relentless cheerfulness.  Having embraced Obama, Hanson notes, the media also embraces a European style economy (not from the hip 60s, but from the decayed 2010s), and calls it good.

California, Hanson’s home state and mine, looks equally grim.  Although California has 1/6 of the total American population, it manages to support 1/3 of the nation’s welfare recipients.  Despite the highest teacher pay in the US, we’re number 48 in public school education.  (California was number 1 in the 1960s and very early 1970s.) And although Californians are forced to fork over the highest taxes in America, we have the worst infrastructure.

These facts are deeply depressing, but there is a bright side, and it’s not that we’re going European.  It’s that, if we can find the will, America still has the resources for greatness.  To make this point, Hanson pivoted from focusing on the grim news we see in the news every day, and started identifying America’s staggering resources.

Although the U.S. has 6% of the world’s population, we produce 26% of the world’s goods.  One American worker is as productive as three Chinese workers.

Our military continues to be the wonder of the world.  Even downsized (and Hanson emphasized during the question and answer period that sequestration would slow, rather than reverse, military growth), it will take a long time for other nations to catch up.  Even one of our aircraft carriers (and we have eleven) is greater than the carrier strength of the other nations put together.  Our problem when it comes to wars, isn’t resources or our troop’s abilities.  It’s the leadership’s will to win, or lack thereof.

Despite the shabby state of our primary education system, and despite the political correctness that has destroyed liberal arts programs all over America, when it comes to the hard sciences, the US still leads in higher education.  Of the top ten ranked universities in the world, eight are American.  And of the top ranked fifteen, five of those are in California.

Either because of, or despite, our education system, America continues to lead the world in technological innovation.  In that regard, California’s own Silicon Valley, despite California’s hostile business environment, is still one of the most important intellectual and electronic/technological hubs in the world.

We also lead the world when it comes to exporting our culture.  Americans may be fascinated by a variety of indigenous cultures around the world, but everyone else wants to be American.  They watch our movies, buy our clothes, listen to our music, mimic our military, copy our educational institutions, and love our food.

Our fundamental strength has long been and, for now, continues to be the fact that we are not a class-based society.  Unlike all other countries (whether modern European ones, Latin American banana republics, or Eastern autocracies), people in America do not need the right social or familial connections, the right accent, the right university degree, or the right anything else to succeed.  If they’ve got discipline and drive, they’ll rise up, and if they add to that a touch of marketplace genius, the sky’s the limit.

America’s “room at the top” philosophy may explain why America is the only major nation left in the world with a positive demographic growth trend.  Not only do immigrants want to come here, but people who live here still believe in having children.  With our fertility rate at 2.1, we’re still growing ever so slightly.

The same is not true for the rest of the world.  In Japan, said Hanson, the stores sold more diapers last year for old people than they did for babies.  All over Europe, countries have negative population growth.  China still has 1 billion or so people, but the Chinese one-child policy has ensured that the future will see a dramatically shrunken population.  Russia has more abortions than babies.

The Arab world and Iran are in even worse shape.  Aside from a catastrophic demographic decline, if one takes away their oil (which is beginning to be tapped out) it turns out that they do not have functioning economies.  They have no education, their misogyny means that 50% of their population cannot contribute to their economic well-being, and their controlling doctrine, even more than Islam, is nihilism.  When they insist on a world-wide caliphate, they don’t offer any positive vision about this new world.  Instead, they threaten only destruction.

At the end of his talk, Hanson half-jokingly said that the Islamist line of argument is “Give us what we want, or we’ll make you as miserable as we are.”  Part of America’s diffidence in dealing with Islamists is that we’re unwilling to suffer for short intervals, even if that limited suffering is what it takes to protect entirely us from Islamic nihilism.

The European Union is also a disaster.  Not only is it going broke very quickly, it’s completely undemocratic.  Once accepted into the EU, countries must abide by its Kafka-esque bureaucratic rulings.  Worse, once in, there is no mechanism for dissatisfied countries to leave.  (When Hanson said that, it occurred to me that the EU is the governmental equivalent of a Roach Motel:  countries check in, but they don’t check out.)

Our wonderful Constitution, despite the current fights over the Second Amendment and the religious component of the First, is mostly intact.  Because we have a simple, functioning Constitution, we are the most stable major nation in the world.

America is also fortunate that we have massive amounts of the two things that every society needs to survive:  food and fuel.  Even the Democrat’s relentless attack on California’s central valley (which sees vast swathes of land reduced to dust in order to protect the Delta Smelt), has not changed our status as the world’s major food producer.  Not only do we grow the most food, people like and want American food — it’s clean, safe, and tasty.

We also lead the world in fossil fuel reserves.  While the Arab lands are being pumped dry, American ingenuity means that, on private lands all over America, we are starting to produce meaningful amounts of oil and natural gas that can support us at home and leave enough to send abroad.  If Obama would allow drilling on federal land, and if democrat-run states would allow drilling on their soil, we would have almost unimaginable amounts of cheap fuel.  (Obama, amusingly, used the SOTU to boast about America’s oil production, even as he conveniently forgot to tell the American people that this production is all on private land, since he and many Democrat governors have forbidden it on public land.)

America also continues to be the world’s largest coal producer.  [UPDATE: I erred when i said this. Please see a comprehensive correction here.] Surprisingly, given the Left’s war on coal, it’s still a money-maker.  Even though the government is preventing its use at home, the rest of the world, especially Europe, is begging for more.

Given America’s vast human and natural resources, why aren’t we doing better?  I can stop looking at my notes now, and quote directly from Hanson’s latest article at National Review:

The gradual decline of a society is often a self-induced process of trying to meet ever-expanding appetites rather than a physical inability to produce past levels of food and fuel or to maintain adequate defense. Americans have never had safer workplaces or more sophisticated medical care — and never have so many been on disability.


By any historical marker, the future of Americans has never been brighter. The United States has it all: undreamed-of new finds of natural gas and oil, the world’s preeminent food production, continual technological wizardry, strong demographic growth, a superb military, and constitutional stability.

Yet we don’t talk confidently about capitalizing and expanding on our natural and inherited wealth. Instead, Americans bicker over entitlement spoils as the nation continues to pile up trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Enforced equality, rather than liberty, is the new national creed. The medicine of cutting back on government goodies seems far worse than the disease of borrowing trillions from the unborn to pay for them.


History has shown that a government’s redistribution of shrinking wealth, in preference to a private sector’s creation of new sources of it, can prove more destructive than even the most deadly enemy.

(You really should read the whole article, which is a pleasing amalgam of ancient history, mid-20th century trends, and our modern condition.  It takes a truly great writer and thinker to blend those disparate elements so seamlessly and to arrive at a compelling conclusion.)

If the opportunity to hear Victor Davis Hanson comes your way, seize it.  It’s a great pleasure to be in the same room as a speaker who uses his education, knowledge, and intelligence to support fundamental American principles.

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  • Sgt. Mom

    I’m glad to hear your report of VDH’s talk. If he would come to Texas and do a lecture, I would so be there! I was born and raised in California, and educated there too, back when it was still possible to get a first-rate education in the public universities without hocking your soul to pay off a student loan. There was a time when it was great to live in small-town California, or even a suburb of a bigger city. I lived that life, so did my parents and my grandparents, too. My parents – who were born and educated there also – love it to this day. It was a wonderful, magical place … once. It breaks my heart to read VDH’s accounts of how the farming and working-class segments of the Central Valley are all going to heck in a handbasket. I used to drive down the Central Valley between Mather AFB, where I was stationed in the early 80ies, and my parent’s house in a distant suburb of LA – and stop at a place in Madera, for a meal and home-made pie; the place was a cafe where all the local farmers used to hang out of a mid-morning, I hate the thought that all of that has dried up and blown away, the restaurant is probably boarded up now, and the raisin farmers have gone bankrupt.
    I own some land in California, near a national park. I had meant to build a retirement home on it, but I don’t think that will happen. I’ve put it on the market – my home will be in Texas, now.

  • jj

    One minor quibble – Enterprise hung ’em up in December, so we have – at best – ten carriers.  That doesn’t mean ten ready for sea.  Four at the moment are in Norfolk and one’s in San Diego.  Deployments average between five and seven months, and they’re usually home for six months between them to refit, repair, scotch-tape stuff back together, etc.  Refueling them takes – because they’re nuclear – a year.  So the reality is that we have (maybe) five available to be at sea at any given moment – as long as nothing big breaks.  Nimitz is now 41 years old, and two years ago lost a full year in dry-dock up here in Bremerton.  Stennis had to break away from refit and down-time four months early last August to get the hell back to the Gulf so we could maintain a two-ship presence keeping an eye on Iran.  When you have to haul one away from the dock four months ahead of schedule that is not a good sign.  That does not indicate that you have plenty, or really even enough, to do the job.
    I also quibble with the class-free country idea, because we sure as hell do have a ruling class.  They are self-perpetuating, and all too often politics is the family business and it damn well does jump you over everybody else.  Chelsea Clinton is an awesomely bad reporter, but she’s Chelsea Clinton, so there she is learning on the job on national air.  Working your way up – that’s for the peasants.  When was the last time anybody named Kennedy got – or did – an actual job?  Or Harry Reid’s kid?  
    I like VDH a great deal, but there are some realities.    

  • Mike Devx

    jj, yes, when you’re in the privileged class, doors are opened for you and things are much easier.  But I’d say that it’s still true that with luck and skill anyone can kick those doors open, even within one generation.  I’ve just been thinking and looking a bit into our recent presidents.  Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all had extremely modest beginnings, and look where they ended up.
    And that’s just recent presidents.  I haven’t even thought about Congress or people high up in State governments.  And business leaders.  To pick a few top names in IT, into what circumstances were Bill Gates and Steve Jobs born? Sam Walton (Wal-Mart founder) began life very modestly.
    Sure, if you’re born into privilege, or your family has made it into the privileged elite by the time you enter high school, you’ve got a much easier path in life… but the way is open for just about anyone, given the right choices in life, luck, determination, talent, etc.

  • Ymarsakar

    “jj, yes, when you’re in the privileged class, doors are opened for you and things are much easier.  But I’d say that it’s still true that with luck and skill anyone can kick those doors open, even within one generation. ”
    Except the Left goes out of their way to make sure their monopoly on wealth and power stays with them, not anyone else.
    That’s the evil part in evil.

  • Mike Devx

    Ymar you said: Except the Left goes out of their way to make sure their monopoly on wealth and power stays with them, not anyone else.
    I agree completely.  If you challenge the Left in an area where they have control and power, they will (try to) destroy you.  Every once in a while they go after Rush, and he just laughs and tosses it back in their faces.  How he must enrage them!
    It’s particularly dangerous to be a “minority” and to challenge them.  Sarah Palin got the worst of it, and now they are trying to do the same to Dr. Benjamin Carson.  Get back on the reservation!  How dare you!?!?!   I think Dr. Carson is going to survive the attempted destruction very well, though.
    You see it in the global warming/sustainability movements, especially in academia, where the Left controls the debate, the peer review process, the budgets.  You will lose tenure, your articles will be automatically rejected, you will not be published, and your career within academia will suffer, and probably end.  The Soviet Union’s communist apparatchiks had nothing on these guys; they are relentlessly vicious and thoroughly committed.

  • Charles Martel

    I think Victor Davis Hanson is my favorite conservative commentator. Whenever I see that he’s written a new essay, I pretty much drop what I’m doing to link to it. As a Californian who is familiar with the places he describes, I see him as my state’s Cassandra.
    That’s what puzzles me about his optimism in this essay. Cassandras are not given to punctuating their tocsins with hopeful asides. I think VDH may be expressing a last-gasp attempt to see how America might yet get out of the terrible mess it’s in.
    But I can’t buy it. Everything he says about America’s potential is true–the gigantic energy reserves, the still-great research institutions, its hard-core underlay of risk takers and hard workers. But arrayed against them are legions of determined statists, race pimps, neo-Marxists, propagandists, jurists, legislators, and academicians who truly desire the end of the could-be country Hanson describes.
    Yes, I know that the left’s grand enterprise inevitably will collapse because of its built-in contradictions. Yes, we can’t go on borrowing money we have no sane hope of ever paying back. Yes, we can’t continue spreading the national legs and inviting every dictatorship in the world to have its way with us without eventual catastrophic consequences.
    Yes, we cannot afford to do what has been done to black Americans—the corner abortuaries, the destruction of their families and sexual morality, the consignment of their children to public indoctrination centers—without igniting an eventual civil war.
    Will “low-information” voters finally awake to put a stop to it? Probably not. They’re like the women who stay in abusive relationships: “Yeah, I know I sometimes have to hit you, but I’m the only one who really loves you, Baby.”
    So, the left will probably, despite VDH’s rosy optimism, succeed in its mission to destroy this country. Given the nihilism at its heart, the statist movement will be content with that. The land of joyous fracking and world-leading invention VDH so wistfully envisions is being strangled in its cradle as we speak.
    Nice try, Victor.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I’m with you on this one (again), Hammer. One problem that people seem to be obsessing over is the flawed, self-destructive policies pushed by the Progressives, as if “if only we can convince them to change the policies, we could be OK”. The real problem…and the more intractable problem…is not the policies but the people and mindsets that buy into those policies.
    The most important rhetorical contribution to the political lexicon has been that of the “low information voter”. Nothing can break through the mindset and worldview of the low-information voter except a major crisis that affects them hard and personal. I believe that it was you who introduced the term “invincible ignorance” our Bookworm Room salon discussions. That’s where we are at. The Progressive Left has successfully infantilized a significant voting block of Americans through mindless entertainment and dysfunctional education. We have to accept that.
    Unfortunately, by the time the invincibly ignorant low-information voters “get it”, it may well be too late to turn back. I keep thinking that I may yet see the United States reduced to a failed third-world state like Argentina in my lifetime. If we are lucky.

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » An update about US energy production()

  • Ymarsakar

    With enough blood on the streets in a war, even low information voters will wake up. Eventually.

  • Mike Devx

    Charles and Danny (in 6 and 7) you guys are spot on.
    VDH is right to mention the positives.  They exist!  They are there!
    But the problem is, this Statist overspending train we are on has a completely predictable end, and it’s horrifying.  Many of here in Book’s domain see this end clearly – and we are convinced that continuing down this track guarantees that horrifying result.  Apparently intelligent people such as Paul Krugman simply do not agree with us about that end result.  We’re convinced it must happen; they are convinced it will not.
    So we ought to be able to sit back and enjoy this ride right now!  But we cannot, because we know the disaster that is coming at us (ever so slowly).  Can you enjoy the beautiful day in your backyard today if you *know* a tornado is coming tomorrow to lay waste to it all?

  • Ymarsakar

    I think Krugman knows it will happen, he is fine with it so long as he can keep others ignorant. That way he and his allies profit off the crash when it happens. It’s a wealth transfer. Those that know, can cash out at the right time. Those that don’t know, get nothing.