There is no single item with which the liberal-progressive project of the last half-century is more identified than the pursuit of rights. We all know the history, we all know why; we all think of this work (past and present) as vital, and we are all proud that it is the broad left that undertook and carries on this fight.
However, it is the case that we have overemphasized the rights of citizenship at the expense of talking about the responsibilities thereof. One doesn’t exist without the other. But progressives don’t acknowledge that enough. It’s wrong fundamentally, because building a sense of responsibility is vital to the health of a republic; and it’s been very wrong politically, because it leaves the topic to the right, which talks about responsibility in very different ways than we would, if our side spoke of it. They mean personal responsibility (and they usually mean it directed at poor people). We mean civic responsibility: being a good citizen in an active sense, helping to cultivate and nurture a healthy civic space.
Our side’s failure to discuss this is debilitating because when other Americans hear progressives insisting on rights for this group and that one but not acknowledging the responsibilities that come with those rights, they hear a bunch of whiny petitioners. We must change this. This issue’s installment in our “First Principles” series takes this problem on directly with excellent pieces by James Kloppenberg, Carmen Sirianni, and Eric Liu, founder of the Guiding Lights Network (which labors in this lonely field and is hosting a conference on creative citizenship in Seattle this March) and member of our editorial committee.
Elsewhere: Last year, Ethan Porter, a former longtime editor at this journal, and David Kendall of Third Way made a case in our pages for a taxpayer receipt—an actual receipt from the IRS telling taxpayers exactly how much they paid in federal taxes and exactly where the money went. The article reverberated broadly. Now, they return with an expanded idea that they call iGov—a process by which the federal government would actually take proactive steps to build ongoing relationships with citizens, telling them over the course of their lifetimes just what they’ve put into the government and what they’re getting out of it. It’s a groundbreaking, I think nearly revolutionary, idea that could dramatically change the way people relate to the government. We really hope the bureaucrats read this one.
Heather Gerken is one of our country’s leading legal scholars on voting rights and minority participation, and we are proud in this issue to publish her argument—challenging to the civil-rights establishment—that progressives should sometimes trust localism and federalism to empower minorities and dissenters. Michael Lind is a previous contributor to our pages, and he is back in this issue, with his former colleague Lauren Damme, with a specific and novel idea to address the fact that we will soon have many more elderly people living much longer lives. Their call is for service vouchers, an idea that has been implemented and is working well in a handful of other advanced countries.
In the books section, we present a strong line-up. Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt, whose Unequal Democracy instantly became an important book when published in 2008, reviews the new book by Thomas Edsall, one of the most prominent political journalists of the last quarter-century, on how austerity will reshape our politics. Princeton’s Daniel T. Rodgers, who made waves of his own with Age of Fracture, takes a look at the new book on the Tea Party movement by our editorial committee member Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. Former Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs brings his considerable expertise on Russia to bear in reviewing a book on the USSR’s collapse, and Middle East scholar and specialist Hussein Ibish does the same with two new books on the Arab Spring. Chris Lehmann, one of our leading journalistic chroniclers of wealth, reviews the new book by the economist Robert Frank of Cornell. And finally, we are pleased to publish David Rieff, responding to essays from the previous issue’s foreign-policy package by Rosa Brooks and Tom Perriello.