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The Concept of Citizenship
Some features of American politics stand out clearly. There are fifty states, which exercise substantial powers according to the Constitution. Congress has two houses, one with 435 members, the other with 100, and both must agree before bills can become national laws. The president serves a four-year term, and perhaps another, is charged with administering various government agencies, and has a commanding role in foreign affairs. The federal courts work through districts and circuits, and the Supreme Court sits in a marble palace in Washington. The details are endless, but one knows more or less what to look for and where.
Good citizenship is less tangible, more difficult to study, and sometimes overlooked in the national roster of political institutions. Americans admire good citizenship. But they are not always sure what citizens should do on behalf of the communities in which they live. This is so even though many people believe that, when civic practice does not measure up to its ideal, a vital element is missing from the national landscape.
In truth, the concern for good citizenship, no matter how imprecisely defined, takes aim at something very important. That is, Americans understand not only that government officials should work properly but also that citizens must help assure the quality of public life. The point is self-evident: In a democracy citizens rule, yet if they rule badly, all will suffer. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that not just constitutional checks and balances but also the practice of good citizenship has helped the nation to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure liberty.
A General Concern
Many Americans worry about how they and their neighbors do, or do not, practice good citizenship. This anxiety appears in newspaper editorials, in political speeches, in sermons, and so forth, with formal expressions such as the report of the National Commission on Civic Renewal entitled A Nation of Spectators: How Civic Disengagement Weakens America and What We Can Do About It.1
The commission, for example, strove to examine citizenship impartially, in the belief that concern for that subject cuts across party affiliations and is therefore an all-American impulse. Co-chaired by former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and former Republican Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities William Bennett, the commission worried, in a nonpartisan way, over symptoms of political disengagement such as a rate of national voter turnout that declined in presidential elections from 62.8 percent in 1960 to 48.9 percent in 1996, even while turnout in state and local elections hovered around 10 to 20 percent.2
Commission members were aware, no doubt, that the right to vote is shared today by most citizens, although this was not always the case in American history. But the will to vote together with friends, neighbors, countrymen, and countrywomen, and thereby to take part in producing election results capable of desirably shaping public life, seemed to the commission, and to many other observers, quite weak.3
From this reality we may deduce that nonvoters are, in a sense, bad citizens. They do not intend their abstention to harm public life and institutions. But neither do they regard themselves as obliged to fill what may be called the office of citizenship, which is nowhere formally defined but constitutes a vital calling in any democratic society. Of that office, more in a moment.
The Public and Hidden Transcripts
From frequent usage, citizenship is a tangled concept with many connotations. Americans have talked about citizenship for more than two hundred years, and many millions of them have practiced it, for better or worse, during the same time as voters, candidates, officeholders, civic activists, and, when necessary, soldiers.4 The subject is so large, then, that no one can analyze it by consulting more than a representative sample of documents and studies indicating what Americans have thought about citizenship in the past and what they think about it today. Unfortunately, to survey only some sources and not others means that, inevitably, some opinions and the people who express them will be slighted. I cannot avoid this result, but I can explain the reasoning that guided my choice of source materials for this book.
To make a long story short, I decided that the best place to locate a representative sample of documents and studies bearing on American citizenship is in what James C. Scott calls the public transcript. This is Scott's term for the visible part of any nation's conversation with itself, with its founders and their descendants.5 In America, the public transcript includes official documents such as the Mayflower Compact (1620), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the Constitution (1789); political speeches such as George Washington's Farewell Address (1796), Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1863), and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address (1961); and Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), Lochner v. New York (1905), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The American public transcript also includes widely publicized expressions of opinion such as The Federalist (1787-1788), "The Seneca Falls Declaration" (1848), and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963).6
When Scott analyzed nondemocratic societies, he regarded their public transcripts as expressing the values of dominant elites. Less powerful members of the same societies, he observed, who might be slaves, serfs, women, or religious and ethnic minorities, are often afraid to speak openly about what they believe. They therefore express their opinions and ideas, if at all, mostly in a hidden transcript, whose sometimes bitter messages, perhaps via diaries, letters, protest songs, and folktales, run through underground channels of communication.
To consult a substantial part of America's public transcript, even without citing the country's hidden transcript, requires considerable effort. It is a feasible effort, however, as compared with trying to study both. Moreover, in the case of considering America's devotion to citizenship, one may regard this feasible effort as adequate, if not perfect. In a democracy where frequent elections determine who will hold public office, we can reasonably assume that political people, even elites, will mostly refrain from expressing opinions that contradict what large numbers of citizens believe.
In fact, democratic candidates usually affirm principles and preferences that match what voters hold to be true. To do otherwise would cause the mavericks to lose electorally. It follows, in a free society, that we can look at what political winners say and assume that it approximately represents what many, or most, citizens believe. This is so even though, as we shall see, many Americans, and especially women and many African Americans, were prevented from voting and being elected until fairly recently.
Three Kinds of Citizenship
Considering mainly the public transcript, it would appear that for Americans there are three parts to the concept of citizenship. Popular talk does not refer to these aspects of the subject separately and distinctly, but to keep them clear in our minds it will be convenient here to call them Citizenship Ⅰ, Citizenship Ⅱ, and Citizenship Ⅲ.7
Citizenship I refers to a person's legal status, to whether or not, for example, one is entitled to reside in a specific country and, in modern times, carry its passport. Many regimes furnish their members with this status, which can exist today in places as diverse as Canada, Iran, and Japan. Citizenship Ⅰ may entail little social interaction, as when Daniel Boone is reputed to have moved his homestead further into the primeval forest when he saw smoke from his neighbor's log cabin. For such people, as de jure citizens, good citizenship is mainly a matter of obeying their country's laws, which defend and preserve the local populace. The range of obedience will vary, of course, from country to country, from stopping at red lights, to serving on juries, to enlisting in the armed forces, to paying taxes.
Citizenship Ⅱ appears when, in some cases, there exists an active sort of belonging, with political participation as its hallmark. Here, some de jure members of the community (Citizenship Ⅰ) are entitled to participate in making decisions concerning matters of public interest. In most modern states, and especially in republics and democracies, Citizenship Ⅱ has become a common condition of political life. In America, Abraham Lincoln praised this sort of politics when he described it in the Gettysburg Address as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."8 For such people, good citizenship means obeying their country's laws and helping to make them, say, by voting or being elected to a public office.
Citizenship Ⅲ is more difficult to define than its companions. Unconditional civil obedience and routine political participation can produce bad social results, as in cases where citizens like Germany's Adolf Eichmann collaborated calmly, or even enthusiastically, in legalized genocide.9 Consequently, it seems advisable to promote an active practice of citizenship that is sometimes better than ordinary. In this third sense of the subject, good citizenship requires more than just obeying a country's laws and perhaps helping to make them. Citizenship Ⅲ requires, in addition, virtuous behavior. It obliges citizens to use their political resources and skills to participate well, that is, to maintain not just effective laws but also a decent state.10
Good Citizens and Good People
Although each sort of citizenship may be admirable in its own way, they can be separately and jointly problematical. For example, between Citizenship Ⅰ and Citizenship Ⅲ, there is an implication that individuals can practice a commendable form of citizenship only by combining the demands of two different social roles. On this score, the right sort of citizenship, for Americans at least, sometimes requires a good citizen to also be a good person.
Yet between these two roles, and therefore between Citizenship Ⅰ and Citizenship Ⅲ, there arises a moral dilemma that may be traced back at least to the life of Socrates. One of the great teachers in Western history, Socrates left no written works to tell his story. But commentators like Plato, who admired Socrates as a good man, say he insisted on challenging the traditions of Athens to the point where his neighbors, assembled in an Athenian jury, convicted him in 399 B.C. of corrupting young people by leading them away from routine obedience to Athenian laws (Citizenship Ⅰ).
Acting publicly in his role as a good person (Citizenship Ⅲ), Socrates apparently argued that, under certain circumstances, citizens should not contribute to injustice by obeying an immoral state. With examples such as the Socratic life in mind, men and women in Western society for more than two thousand years have envisioned the social role of a good person as being sometimes, and occasionally severely, at odds with the social role of being a good citizen. After all, obedience provides predictability and stability in public affairs, whereas civil disobedience, no matter how virtuous, may undermine the routine conditions of law and order that enable members of a community to prosper together.
This point is highly significant. Because the role of good citizen (who sustains law, order, and security) and the role of good person (who pursues curiosity, knowledge, and virtue) may point toward different ends and call for different kinds of behavior, people may not know for sure how to act out Citizenship Ⅲ. In truth, to combine law and virtue can be difficult and even dangerous.11 Thus Allied judges at the Nuremburg Trials after World War Ⅱ assumed that, on behalf of natural justice, good Germans in the law-abiding sense (Citizenship Ⅰ) should have disobeyed Nazi laws (Citizenship Ⅲ). But how could Germans have known this before they lost the war? Where, for example, as the storm raged, could most Germans have found the courage to risk losing their loved ones by hiding Jews or Gypsies if death for entire families was the punishment for helping enemies of the state according to laws enforced by implacable Nazi police?
In an example closer to home, many Americans admired Martin Luther King, Jr. Here was a man who led thousands of demonstrators to disobey segregation laws but seemed praiseworthy for serving the highest interests of a country that had, shamefully, enacted such laws in many states and enforced them even in Washington, D.C. King reminded his followers of legalized racism in Nazi Germany and insisted that decent men and women must strongly oppose America's homegrown brand of the same evil.12 The principle seems clear, but where should one draw the line? Are antiabortionists who defy the Supreme Court as laudable as Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Inclusion and Empowerment
In American history, Citizenship Ⅱ is doubly problematic. First, we know the country did not extend participation rights to all its early residents, for example, not to Native Americans, not to slaves, not to most free African Americans later, not for a long time to women, and very slowly to Asian immigrants.13 Only gradually, then, did such people overcome what is called today exclusion.
Modern scholars have extensively explored the history of political exclusion.14 I will not refer much to their research, though. I will comment a little on who gained inclusion, who got Citizenship Ⅱ, when they received it, and why they seemed worthy of possessing it. But mainly I will ask what they were supposed to do with Citizenship Ⅱ once it entitled them to participate. I assume that although many Americans were long left out of political life, most of them were eventually brought in. Accordingly, I am concerned less with what happened on the way to that end and more with what people believe they should do upon arriving.
Second, even when, as today, political inclusion is widely authorized by law, there remains a question of whether or not to assure to each citizen enough resources so that he or she will be able to exercise the rights of Citizenship Ⅱ effectively.15 In this regard, we sometimes speak of empowerment, which may flow from entitlements.
Thus most Americans now possess the rights of Citizenship Ⅱ. These include the rights to vote, to speak freely, to organize interest groups, to petition government officials, to run for office, to be elected, and so forth. However, social conditions enable some Americans to exercise these rights more powerfully than others, on the basis of health, wealth, ethnicity, gender, race, or other potent resources. Where this is so, it may seem reasonable to redress, perhaps by affirmative action, various imbalances of political outcome that will exist even after almost everyone enjoys the status of Citizenship Ⅱ.16
|1||The concept of citizenship||3|
|2||Early civic ideas||19|
|Pt. II||American exceptionalism|
|3||The republican moment||51|
|4||The democratic moment||80|
|5||The challenge to good citizenship||109|
|Pt. III||The modern economy|
|6||The rise consumerism||137|
|7||The cost of consumerism||170|
|Pt. IV||Good citizenship|
|9||The primary of politics||253|