Saving American Democracy: Citizens & Citizenship

The previous column discussed the need to restore honor as a public virtue if American democracy is to survive and thrive. Understanding what it means to be a citizen and the obligations of citizenship are two more elements added to the list.

There was a time when being a citizen included obligations generally understood as citizenship.  Citizenship was taught in schools, championed by fraternal organizations, and important to Scouting.  The DAR sponsored an annual nationwide essay contest on citizenship; the winner made national news.  I think the contest still lives, but it garners little attention.  

In broad terms, citizenship meant having a basic understanding of democratic principles, knowing how government functions, being informed about local and national public policy issues, voting, and volunteering as needed for community service. Taken together, citizenship invoked loyalty to the community.  It didn’t diminish American individualism, but placed it within the context of healthy, interdependent communities where individual effort could flourish.  It’s a virtue of citizenship we’ve largely lost.

Friend and conversation partner Tom Davis puts it this way: “What has been lost in the notion of ‘citizenship’ is the internal relation between what it means to freely exercise your individual ‘rights’ and the larger and deeper context of obligation that is rooted in the authority of something more important than you. If nothing and no one is more important than you then the notion of ‘obligation’ is hollowed out and turns into the sense of ‘duty’ that is imposed on you from outside.”

There is worthy nobility in the old virtue of citizenship, but little evidence that it has much value these days.  What happened?  Citizenship appears to have been struck from K-12 education.  The role of fraternal organizations in community life has all but ceased to exist.  Scouting has its own problems.  Adding confusion and conflict, some activists conflate citizenship with conservative evangelicalism tainted with right wing libertarian politics.   

With citizenship shunted onto a siding, the status of citizen has become nothing more than status according to the law:  a legal convention that confers the right to vote, and access to certain benefits, nothing more than that.

Oddly enough, the concept of legally defined citizen status is relatively recent and very American.  Most ancient societies had a sense of those who were subjects of the monarch.  But rights were the possession of the monarch, subjects were never citizens in the modern sense.  Virtues that we define in terms of citizenship were expressed as loyalties to one’s place of birth and tribal membership.  Greeks and Hebrews were partial exceptions with more clearly defined rules for what it meant for one to be a citizen with rights and obligations to the good of the polis, tribe and nation.

To be a Roman citizen started out that way, but by the first century c.e. it had become a commodity gained by birth, purchase, or reward for service.  While it included benefits of social status, it inspired little ethical obligation to the good of others or the empire. 

Citizen, in the modern sense, didn’t reemerge as a legal status until the American Constitution of 1789.  Its authors relied heavily on the ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Romans in addition of Enlightenment political philosophies.  They also borrowed from English common law, yet the English didn’t codify the status of citizen until 1914.  The legal definition of citizen is the norm in all countries today, but the virtue of citizenship is less recognized.

The American ideal virtue of citizenship, understood in broad terms of ethical obligation to the good of the community, may have become a mere shadow of its former self, but it’s still worthy albeit with serious weaknesses that must be addressed if it is to be restored.

It was established from the exclusive perspective of privileged white men.  In time, it became the provenance of the very best of what the white middle class stood for.  It assumed that everyone else would want to to be American according to the accepted white middle class understanding of citizenship.

Most European immigrants did.  They came seeking freedom, rights and opportunity from places where they had little of any.

That wasn’t true for Black Americans whose ancestors had been brought here against their will, sold into forced labor, and defined as two-thirds of a non-person unable to ever gain citizen status.  The Constitution gave Black Americans citizen status in 1865, but it was a status subverted by Jim Crow laws and local prejudices not addressed until the civil rights legislation of the mid 1960s.  Sixty years later it’s being undermined  again.

American Indians were subject to wars of conquest, genocidal extermination, broken treaties, not counted in the census, and not given the status of citizen until 1924.  Even today their lands and rights are being ignored.

Asians came as laborers, but laws were enacted to stop further immigration that were not repealed until the mid 20th century.  Nineteenth century local and state laws prohibited Asians from owning property, and denied their 14th Amendment rights as citizens.  The U.S. imprisoned West Coast Japanese Americans during WWII simply because they were Japanese.  By contrast, German Americans were often monitored but seldom imprisoned.

Mexican Americans are another and more complicated story for another time to tell.

The point is that a white middle class understanding of obligations adhering to the status of citizen appear today as enigmatically hypocritical to those who were so long denied the right to enjoy the privileges of citizen status but were expected to adopt white middle class virtues of citizenship without question or hesitation.

The virtues of American citizenship are worthy and must be revitalized if democracy is to survive and thrive.  It will require that formerly excluded voices be prominent in constructing a new definition built on the worthy foundation of the old.  

2 thoughts on “Saving American Democracy: Citizens & Citizenship”

  1. ……and then, there is the story of ‘Oiwi, Kanaka Ma’oli, Native Hawaiians….which is perhaps the most unknown and under-appreciated and, thus, the one story crying out, loudly,. for justice and “recognition”….

    1. Yes, it’s a story I kmow well. It’s also complicated and foreign to the history of continental Amerrica. My heart aches every ttime I rehearse the story, but I also have hopes that Hzwaaii’s story can give hope to a multicultural future the continent will have.e

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