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February 06, 2006

citizenship: choice and duty

Russell Arben Fox has written a thoughtful essay on localism, populism, and participation. He is skeptical that we can increase the quality or quantity of civic engagement by tinkering with the political system--for instance, by changing the way we draw electoral districts or by decentralizing power. The root of the problem, Fox thinks, is psychological; it is the "privatized model of the modern democratic citizen."

Today, people don't feel assigned to duties in communities. Instead, they are supposed to make judicious choices among politicians and policies in order to get desired outcomes. But it is often easier to move one's jurisdiction than to affect its policies. ("Exit" is easier than "voice.") People congregate in the most privileged geographical communities that they can afford, rather than trying to improve the more diverse communities from which they came.

In short, the overwhelming success--depending on how you define the term--of modern market economies has had the result of many citizens adapting themselves to habits of gratification, self-actualization, immediacy, individuation, and internalized (that is, nonpublic) rationalization. Decisionmaking has been reduced in the lives of too many of us to a perpetually self-generated and always self-revisable internal calculus: what do I want, and what do I want now? I am not saying the disciplines and expectations associated with free markets are flawed; I am saying, however, that market-appropriate behaviors are not appropriate to self-government. A relatively successful market economy, combined with a superficial sense of equality bequeathed to us through a naive understanding of one's 'rights,' results in a general indifference towards others so long as one's own rights and property are acknowledged; hence, the more the dominant segments of society are socially and economically homogenized (enjoying at least superficially an easily replicable level of prosperity across society), the easier it is for those citizens in that class to retreat within themselves and assume everyone else will do likewise. Our sensitivity to truly public matters decline, and our political muscles atrophy. Of course, the enormous leaps in personalized technology, which have allowed us to connect ourselves to networks of art and information that involve no collective determination or distribution, as well as the abandonment of truly involving civic requirements (like a draft), only reifies this process further.

I largely agree and would add some supporting points. First, there is evidence that citizenship has shifted from a model of ascribed duties to one of choice. That process of "modernization" occurred in the Progressive Era and was marked by such reforms as: the secret ballot, attacks on political parties (which represented identity groups), the rise of a nonpartisan, independent press, and a profound shift in education. (Instead of sermonizing about duties, schools and universities began to provide arrays of autonomous academic methods and disciplines from which students could freely choose.)

Second, I agree that the new model of citizenship has flaws:

  • Making judicious choices among policies is very demanding. It takes time, information, and motivation. If this is what citizenship requires, many people will not participate at all. For instance, when party-line voting declines, so does turnout.
  • As Gerry Stoker writes in a passage that Fox quotes, a market system creates expectations of choice, ease of transactions, efficiency, and customer-service that cannot be met in politics, because politics involves debate and conflicting interests. Therefore, people accustomed to consumerism will tend to shun politics.
  • At some deep level, a life spent making instrumental choices is unsatisfying. Perhaps we can choose political parties and politicians in order to advance non-political goals, such as security. But if we choose our family ties, our neighborhoods, our religions, and everything else for instrumental reasons, what is the purpose of it all?
  • Third, I agree with Fox that the modernist definition of citizenship is here to stay; we cannot return to a widespread sense of ascribed duty. In 2002, we surveyed young Americans and asked how they felt about voting. Thirty-one percent said it was a right, and 34% said it was a choice. Twenty percent said that it was a responsibility, and 9% said that it was a duty. These results may change a little over time, but they will not turn upside-down.

    Nevertheless, I suspect that there are political reforms that could improve the current situation. Civic engagement does have an intrinsic appeal, at least for some people some of the time. There are few other venues in which one can deal with diverse peers on terms of rough equality, addressing serious and dignified concerns. Thus, for some people, opportunities to participate create lasting habits; engagement is self-reinforcing. This is especially true for youth: a mass of research in developmental pyschology shows that civic experiences in adolescence have lifelong effects.

    This is where localism comes back. Fox is right that "professional turf-guarding can occur in local jurisdictions." However, the dramatic consolidation of such jurisdictions has left a lot fewer professionals guarding a lot more turf. Elinor Ostrom calculates that in 1932, 900,000 American families had one member with formal responsibilities on a government panel or board, such as one of the 128,548 school boards then in existence. Given rotation in office, well over 1 million families had some policymaking experience in their own recent memories. Today, thanks to consolidation, there are only 15,000 school districts, an 89% decline. Meanwhile, the population has more than doubled. The result is a decline of probably 95% in all opportunities to serve in local government. The same thing has happened in high schools: a three-generation panel study run by Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker finds a 50% decline in participation in most student groups, thanks largely to the consolidation of schools. (Fewer schools mean fewer seats on student governments.)

    In short, I agree that modernization has created a problematic definition of citizenship (although the older sense of duty had its drawbacks, too). But I think that we could get considerably better results if we increased opportunities to participate.

    Posted by peterlevine at February 6, 2006 01:34 PM



    Thanks for the kind and constructive thoughts. It was difficult for me to get the tone and the substance of my post right--and I'm still not sure I did--because, as you note, the "modernist definition of citizenship is here to stay." Absent a tremendous socio-economic transformation, it is simply not going to happen that large numbers of people will find themselves leaving in relatively homogenous, sociall and economically enclosed (and hence "exit-restrictive") communities, which is where the ascription of civic duties has the greatest chance of being recognized and valued on its own terms. So what do we do? We don't want to turn citizenship into something wholly modern and consumer-oriented, yet if we don't create contexts for engagement that reflect at least some contemporary expectations, all our exhorations will be in vain. It's a puzzle.

    I agree that the principle of localism cannot be sacrificed. But the whole question of my post, prompted by your comments and the research of Macedo and Karpowitz, was "what's local"? What kind of localities can we reasonably expect to be able to plug people into, or that we can teach students and others today to relate to? Your data on school consolidation is absolutely pertinent, and it's something that I've thought about for a long time. How broadly and how locally should school districts be constructed, so that on the one hand there is plenty of opportunity for local engagement, and on the other hand the "community" the school serves is broad enough so that parents and children won't see in it (whether or not they are correct) a disatisfyingly narrow locality that they'd just as well escape from by moving out to the suburbs? In short, it's a question of figuring out upon what scale we can best encourage the participation of modern citizens today.

    I'd prefer a world of frequent neighborhood civic activity; but I have to admit that most modern suburban Americans just don't see their neighborhoods in the that way any longer, at least not typically. Perhaps we can find ways to socially and economically empower neighborhoods, so that they can serve more often as the sort of "enclaves" (and thus sites of civic ascription) which they once regularly did. But we also need to address the possibility that some jurisdictional thinking may be unrecoverable in the face of "shop-around-and-exit" citizenship, and reconceive at least some localities and their forms of government on different, broader terms.

    Posted by: Russell Arben Fox [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2006 12:22 AM

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