First Principles: Reclaiming Citizenship

By The Editors

Tagged Civics

If progressive politics over the past half century is identified with one activity more than any other, we think there is no question that that activity is the pursuit and expansion of rights. This started with the civil rights movement and branched out from there. It was and remains vitally important work, and numerous organizations exist in Washington and elsewhere to press the case for rights.

We at Democracy, while not for a second denying the need for constant vigilance with regard to rights, have long felt that progressives frankly don’t care enough about the other side of citizenship: responsibility. Here, we don’t mean—to use that phrase that Bill Clinton tried to appropriate from the Republicans in the 1990s—personal responsibility. We mean something else: civic responsibility. What it means to be a true and good and productive citizen. The obligations that come along with rights. These obligations can sound quaint and as fusty as something delivered by the Wells Fargo Wagon. But they’re real: the need to contribute to one’s community and country; to understand that one’s rights must exist in balance with other prerogatives; to commit oneself to the idea that political disputes should be resolved more or less amicably; to pledge loyalty to the ideals of reasoned debate, majority rule, protections of minority rights, and so on.

This—not just the securing of a right—is citizenship, and the sad record tells us that it just isn’t very important to progressives today. In stark contrast to the vast constellation of rights-based outfits, very few groups are organized around citizenship, and very little money is spent fostering it. The rights-obligations scales are wildly out of balance, and have been for decades.

The imbalance has to be corrected, for three reasons. First, it’s simply the right thing to do—fostering this kind of citizenship, however long the odds of success these days, would demonstrate fidelity to the kind of country the Founders wanted. Second, this is yet another area in which contemporary progressivism has yielded vast territory to the right. It’s largely been the right that has talked about responsibility in recent American history, but the right as usual has it almost all wrong. They mean: the responsibilities of poor people, our obligations to the family, Jesus, the unborn. It may madden progressives to hear the media ape these sentiments, but they do so because our side doesn’t even use the language of obligation. Barack Obama has begun to change that—at last he talks about the social obligations of the well-off. But even he is hesitant to push too hard, perhaps out of fear of how conservatives might attack him—or how liberals might react.

The third reason is the most important: Regular Americans won’t respond to a message that features demands for rights without acknowledging and also emphasizing the responsibilities that come with those rights. Liberalism once placed great emphasis on the idea of civic obligation. It’s probably no accident that that was during liberalism’s heyday. Today’s progressives should get that message.

So citizenship is an absolutely vital principle of progressive politics—which is why, as part of our “First Principles” series, we present this package of articles on progressivism and citizenship. James Kloppenberg of Harvard traces the history of liberalism and civic obligation, and shows how deeply intertwined both were until fairly recently. Carmen Sirianni of Brandeis shows us that civic engagement—citizen decision-making, guided and assisted by the government—is actually alive and well all over the country, but could and should be much more widespread than it is. And Eric Liu, the former Clinton White House aide who sits on our editorial committee, addresses what Americanness can and must mean in the twenty-first century, and why only progressives can define and build that space. Eric’s group, the Guiding Lights Network, is hosting a conference on creative citizenship in Seattle this month. This special installment of “First Principles” is produced to coincide with that conference.

Restoring the Language of Obligation

By James T. Kloppenberg


The Networks of Self-Governance

By Carmen Sirianni


Sworn-Again Americans

By Eric Liu


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The Editors of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas are Michael Tomasky (Editor), Jack Meserve (Managing Editor), and Delphine d'Amora (Associate Editor).

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Bernard Schwartz, 1925-2024

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