Although I’d read about how Obama —and to a lesser extent McCain — had inspired and mobilized a truly astounding number of volunteers, when I visited Obama’s local campaign office in New Hampshire a few days before the 2008 election, I couldn’t help but be over-whelmed by their energy and sense of urgency.
“You can sleep after election day,” I heard one volunteer say, and this battle cry seemed to capture a truth of the 2008 presidential campaign — that the election mattered, not only because of the president it would elect, but because of the sense of belonging and meaning citizens gained from their participation in it. But it also hinted at another truth: that come November 4th, for most people, the work would be over. Even though this year’s presidential primaries marked the highest voter turnout in over three decades, less than one-fifth of Americans expect to be involved in political issues after the election. It would be Obama’s job from there on out.
What should we expect of citizens beyond voting and campaigning for representatives? McCain and Obama discussed citizenship at Columbia this past September 11th, but the event fell off the national headlines just a day later. Were the candidates so uninteresting that there was nothing to report?
For the newspapers that feed on controversy, maybe. The candidates agreed that government simply needed to expand volunteer opportunities like the Peace Corps and Americorps. And when Judy Woodruff asked Obama about the differences between his and McCain’s views on citizenship, he answered meekly, “Well, I’m not sure there is anything different.” Where there’s no argument, there’s no story.
But there was another story underlying the entire debate. How did these candidates, who seemed to disagree about everything else, come to agree not only on the meaning of citizenship, but also on what should be done about it? Citizenship, that idea for which so much blood and ink has been spent—this, of all topics, was chosen for its supposed apolitical, non-partisan content at a September 11th debate? Stranger still, swept under the political rug was the fact that the two candidates had radically different experiences of service — military service and community organizing — and that especially in Obama’s case, this service was hardly apolitical.
While bipartisanship can indicate consensus and compromise, we should be suspicious of issues on which debate has ceased — where discourse has given way to a sterility of ideas and a narrowing of political imagination.
TWO IDEAS OF CITIZENSHIP IN AMERICAN POLITICAL THOUGHT
What does it mean to be an active citizen? In America, it has traditionally meant more than legal status, being a good neighbor, and voting on Election Day.
No, active citizenship, as almost every American political thinker who cares about it has said, means something more: involvement in public life beyond the voting booth. But among proponents of active citizenship, agreement ends there. What constitutes “involvement,” and what do we mean by “public life”? And why should we want active citizens anyway?
American thinkers have split roughly into two factions on this question: republicans and liberals, as understood in the classical, not modern, sense. Republicans — like Aristotle, Machiavelli and Rousseau — believe citizens have significant political obligations beyond the voting booth. Liberals, like the three Johns (Locke, Mill, and Rawls) don’t think citizens have many obligations at all: mind your business, pay your taxes, and vote — if you feel like it. Perhaps surprisingly, most Americans agree with the liberal model: both Democrats and Republicans operate within this liberal claim for the limited obligations of citizenship.
America’s distinctly liberal tradition radically narrows what we actually demand of citizens. But we don’t have to stop there: we can recognize liberalism’s limitations while importing ideas from other traditions. And we don’t have to look far, because liberalism has not always been America’s dominant political philosophy. Throughout its history, the United States has been in a perpetual identity crisis about whether democracy requires an active citizenry, or whether government should operate without demanding much citizen participation.
Although the Constitution does not require active citizenship — and although Americans elect representatives to govern for them — it did not necessarily follow, for thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, that citizens had no obligations beyond voting. While Hamilton and Madison distrusted democracy and thought government should operate fairly independently of the people, John Adams was averse to liberalism because he believed a strong sense of moral citizenship was vital to democracy. Adams put it bluntly: “Public Virtue cannot exist without private virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” And Jeffersonians passionately called for intimate involvement in the political process. Americans, they argued, should engage in deliberative political participation and embody in their private lives the virtues they publically espouse.
Though these criticisms were rooted in a desire to revive a mythical, idealized, pre-capitalist agrarian republic, thinkers like Adams and Jefferson still provide the resources for a distinctly American critique of liberalism.
LET’S TALK: THE NEED FOR DELIBERATION
It is not obvious why active citizenship requires deliberation. Isn’t volunteering enough?
Volunteering — in one’s community, in the military, or in any number of other forms — is an undeniably selfless act of citizenship, but it is not enough. Like joining an association of citizens who share your policy goals, volunteering lacks an important element of citizenship: deliberation with citizens with whom you might disagree. And deliberative politics requires citizens to discuss political issues—be they specific policy questions, or candidate choices—in a variety of settings: school meetings, neighborhood associations, town halls, and the rest.
Alexis de Tocqueville extolled deliberation’s virtues after observing it in action in the New England town meetings of the 1820s. He wrote, “The interests of the country are everywhere kept in view; they are an object of solicitude to the people of the whole Union, and every citizen is as warmly attached to them as if they were his own.” Through deliberation, citizens can expand their viewpoints beyond personal self-interest to the needs of the community and the nation as a whole. Social scientist James Fishkin has confirmed Tocqueville’s observations by demonstrating that when voters discuss issues in small groups in consultation with relevant experts, they become better informed and generate more coherent policy opinions.
The modern world has not been kind to deliberation. In its 2008 report, the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC)—a government-created center that aims to promote America’s “civic life” — found that most Americans recoil negatively at the word “democracy.” Political philosopher Michael Sandel traces this “discontent” with democracy to the growth of state and the mass economy. “The first expression of the discontents that we find so powerful today showed up really in the early twentieth century, when suddenly big business and the national economy and monopolies and trusts organized economic power and social life on a vast scale and people felt dis- oriented, displaced,” he noted in an interview with David Gergen. Add to this the rise of massive bureaucracy, as well as the increased importance of experts in politics, and it’s not hard to see why citizens feel disconnected from — and averse to — government. John Dewey recognized the destructive impact of a large state and unwieldy economy on democratic deliberation as early as the 1920s, but he held out hope that citizens would deliberate again.
He was wrong. From the turn of the twentieth century onwards, American politics has operated within a liberal framework, and active, deliberative citizenship has continued its long decline in both theory and reality. It’s true that major groups of citizens have made their voices heard in the twentieth century through mass organized efforts like the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. Presidents from JFK to George W. Bush have called on citizens to get more involved in government. But the general trend has been one of diminishing civic involvement — a drastic decrease in even the last 30 years. Though ballot initiatives have been on the rise, this form of democracy is more direct than deliberative: citizens vote their preferences without having to consider the common good or expose their views to the critique of fellow citizens. And while an explosion of online political discussion provides the illusion of discourse, the self-selecting nature of these communities does more to reinforce existing opinions than encourage intellectual engagement.
Modern America could use a dose of deliberation in its politics. Professional politicians, small groups of dedicated activists, and expert bureaucrats dominate the political sphere; most citizens remain apathetic. The ills of our modern democracy — vitriolic partisanship, civic incompetence — urge us to bring this ideal back. It’s no panacea, of course: these problems have deeper roots that will not be solved by mere political reform, or even debate. People will continue to fundamentally disagree on many political and moral issues. Social inequality will not magically wither away. But deliberation is a good first step in a much-needed process of political reform.
The Achilles’ heel of modern republicanism has been its inability to adjust to the modern political realities of mass politics and representative government. America is not Athens (thankfully); the sheer number of citizens, combined with the fact that we constitutionally delegate most political power to our representatives, seems to make deliberation irrelevant. Nor should we blindly and anachronistically revive an outdated model unless it responds to modern concerns. But a number of theorists, academics, and activists have been formulating innovative ways to re-involve Americans in the political process.
One innovative idea developed by Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman is the institution of a “deliberation day” during which citizens meet in small groups to discuss political issues and candidates before national elections. 80 percent of Americans favor such a proposal. National Issues Forums, a nationwide network of organizations that supports public forums, has already proven effective in creating decentralized, local deliberative forums for citizen debate. After the 2002 riots in Cincinnati over police shootings, over a hundred deliberative forums were created that, by bringing citizens together and forming community organizations, helped calm severe racial tensions. By updating the deliberative ideal for the modern era through proposals like these, we could put the individual citizen—not the government—back at the center of American political life.
INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR PUBLIC PROBLEMS
Americans love a scapegoat. Usually “Washington”—the perennial punching bag of campaign rhetoric—fills that role nicely. It was only upstaged this year by the new American evil — “Wall Street” — and its infinitely better, amorphous twin — “Main Street.” Idealizing the common citizen as both helpless and morally pure is so endemic to our political discourse that we often don’t notice it. But it is more than a political ploy: it is indicative of how little politicians expect of Americans, and how little we expect of ourselves.
Almost all Americans favor tighter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, but a recent Pew survey reports that most people cannot—or will not—buy more fuel-efficient cars. This is old news. More interestingly, the NCoC noted that this “not unusual” discrepancy between personal behavior and policy preferences demonstrated either “hypocrisy or… that individual voluntary action is impossible [without government support].”
Most people may very well be unable to afford fuel-efficient cars. But citizens living under a liberal government are not hypocritical when they want government to do things for them that they themselves are unwilling to do. In fact, these are ideal citizens in a liberal state: perfectly self-interested, perfectly indifferent to the consequences of their actions.
It’s often said that we get the government we deserve. Well, we get the citizens we deserve. Legislation mandating recycling, or energy-efficient cars and appliances (to name a few examples) is difficult if not impossible to pass in America, not only because of a general disgust for anything suggesting “paternalism,” but also because something in the American creed denies the idea that the individual must take responsibility for the social costs of his actions. Inculcating a sense of the common good in American citizens could help us to begin solving some of America’s most difficult problems.
If only it were that easy. Before we can address the common good, we need some moral agreement on what it might entail. This hits at the most vexing and contested element of modern liberalism: the separation of the ethical sphere from the political sphere. Modern liberal theorists like John Rawls argue that citizens should not be able to legislate on moral issues: ethically speaking, each individual should have the right to determine the way in which he or she lives.
To most modern liberals, this sounds exactly right: the culture wars of the last 30 years have shown that vast numbers of Americans (Christian conservative groups or otherwise) want to impose their conception of morality on all Americans. America’s diversity complicates matters still further: Americans have so many different moral and religious viewpoints that agreement seems impossible. As Columbia History Professor Casey Blake puts it, in this pluralist world, “Many people throw up their hands and say that the most we can hope for is a robust administrative state.”
But by excluding ethical issues from the political sphere, we also lose the ability to call for an expanded conception of citizenship. Imposing a moral standard for civic virtue would seem to violate the rights of citizens who want to determine the course of their own lives.
Instead of abandoning morality in the political sphere, some communitarian philosophers rightly argue that we can keep moral questions — issues of the common good — in the political realm without allowing them to be defined entirely by cultural issues. Morality, and thus the ability to ask more of American citizens, need not be taken off the political table. Agreement on the common good will be difficult and contentious, but we need a serious debate about what this is—and what, if anything, Americans should feel compelled to do about it.
Both the ideals of deliberation and private obligation rest upon a simple idea: that citizens should be involved in their own government. The two ideas work in tandem: deliberation expands citizens’ viewpoints beyond their personal self-interests, while private virtue encourages citizens to involve themselves in political life and work for the common good.
Barack Obama seems to grasp this idea: in his election night victory speech, he declared, “Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.” These are inspiring words, but we should understand their context. Within America’s liberal tradition, they ring a little hollow.
Mining the forgotten American tradition of republicanism may not be the only way to recreate a more meaningful ideal of citizenship, or even the best way. But we shouldn’t sleep on this opportunity to think creatively about citizenship in America.