Author and historian Victor Davis Hanson answers a question during Hauenstein Center event.

Hauenstein panel: Middle class essential to empowered citizenship

The middle class’ declining economic power poses the greatest threat to empowering American democracy and its citizens, according to the two speakers at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies’ premiere event of its 2023-2024 season. 

Author and historian Victor Davis Hanson and CEO of nonprofit Citizen University Eric Liu joined Abby Sachs, the program manager of the Peter C. Cook Leadership Academy, for a discussion on empowered citizenship at the Eberhard Center on September 7.

The discussion, “Citizenship in Crisis: Re-Empowering the American Citizen,” focused on the state of American democracy and how its citizens can overcome barriers to become more engaged and responsible in the process. 

Thursday’s event was the first in a series of events presented by the Hauenstein Center this fall which examines the role of citizenship on national and global stages. 

“The word citizen appears in the Constitution, but it was never particularly defined,” Liu said. “The 14th Amendment spells out what it takes to be a citizen, but it still didn’t spell out what it meant to be one, and nowhere else in our Constitution does that directly either.”

Hanson said the middle class’ diminishing economic and political strength over the last few decades has created the current state of American democracy where power is vested with the wealthy. 

“If we really want to empower citizenship, what we should be doing is saying the greatest threat to citizenship is the decline of the middle class,” Hanson said.

“If you don't have a middle class that is empowered, economically sufficient, they're not going to be able to leverage the wealthy, and they're not going to be a recipient of largess from the government.”

Liu, who joined the discussion virtually from his home in Seattle, said that while he and Hanson may not agree ideologically in some cases, they do concur on the waning middle class in America and the ramifications.

“The fact is while we can agree that the need for a more robust middle class is central, we can also, as Americans, argue on the best ways to get there,” Liu said. “That's part of what it means to self govern, to recognize that sometimes your worldview is going to win and prevail on the best way to do things, and sometimes the other person's worldview is going to prevail.

“But I think that’s the central goal of creating the material conditions so that people have not just the time and not just the kind of influence, but simply the self conception that middle class existence affords us to be able to participate in the everyday work of civic life and democratic self government.”

Liu said the best way for Americans to re-empower their lives as citizens is by starting simply and building connections in their communities.

“Join, join a club, join anything,” Liu said. “Remember the Ben Franklin little woodcut he made during the revolutionary era, ‘Join or Die’? It was not just a slogan about the Union during the revolution. It's a way of life.

“The crisis that we are going through right now is not only an economic material one, it is a spiritual crisis. Loneliness and isolation are so powerfully contagious, and they are the greatest enemies of democracy. When we are isolated, we are manipulable.”

Hanson encouraged young Americans to travel, see the world and experience different cultures and ways of life to develop a better appreciation for their homeland’s strengths and faults. 

“I think sometimes we hold America to a standard that’s impossible,” Hanson said. “If you travel and you see how things work, you come back with a renewed appreciation. We don't have to be perfect to be good, but we do have to be better than the alternative. 

“Once we have that humility, I think we're realistic that we do pretty well, and we shouldn't hold ourselves up to be perfect, and then when we don't achieve it, say that we're no good. We're a very good country, and we’re better than the alternative, and that's good enough in this life.”

The Hauenstein Center’s next event will honor Constitution Day with a lecture by Vincent Phillip Muñoz, founding director of the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government at the University of Notre Dame. Muñoz will speak at 6 p.m. on September 19 at the DeVos Center, Loosemore Auditorium, on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus. 


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