Diminishing Citizenship

Date: 6 May 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Diminishing Citizenship

by David Morris

May 6, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

Some 2500 years ago the Greek city-states took a giant step toward true democracy when they invented the concept of citizenship. Last week, in Philadelphia President Clinton neutered that concept.

In front of three applauding former Presidents and a cheering bipartisan audience President Bill Clinton announced, “I have come here today to redefine citizenship.” In 1997 the President informed us, citizenship has come to mean, “paying taxes, working hard, studying hard, obeying the law and (serving) your community.”

Throughout the weekend leaders defined citizenship as the doing of individual good works. To them a good neighbor is the same as a good citizen. They’re wrong. Neighborliness is the foundation of a healthy civil society. Citizenship is the foundation of a healthy democracy.

Before the Greeks, communities were governed by religious or royal leaders. The Greeks conceived the radical notion that people could directly determine their collective future.

A Greek citizen had rights and responsibilities. He had to defend his community and inform himself about and participate in public policymaking. A Greek citizen might have spent as much time debating the needs of his city as Americans do watching television.

Unfortunately, in Athens, the most democratic city in Greece, only 20 percent of the population were citizens. In 1792, when the first Congress convened in Philadelphia still only about 20 percent of the population had the right to vote.

Over the next 200 years Americans fought to extend the franchise. In 1868 blacks gained the right to vote, although one could argue that in several southern states African Americans did not truly secure suffrage until the 1960s. In 1919, women gained the franchise. In 1971, 18 year-olds did so. Today 70 percent of the population is eligible to vote.

James Madison and company established a Republic where the people’s will could be exercised only indirectly, through elected representatives. In the 20th century, the citizenry expanded its power by creating mechanisms like the initiative and referendum that allow for direct decisionmaking.

All of this activism was about people wanting to participate in making the rules that govern our lives together, the essence of citizenship. Ironically, just as we gained almost universal suffrage we became disillusioned and even cynical about the democratic process. The Philadelphia Summit both reflected and fueled that cynicism. What Clinton was telling us, in effect, was that we are no longer capable of acting collectively as citizens to solve our problems. From now on we must rely on individual charity.

More than 40 million Americans lack health insurance; the number swells by more than a million every year. Yet four years ago the national government abandoned its effort to extend health care to every individual, a basic right residents of every other industrialized country enjoy.

Today more than 15 million American children live in poverty, 2 million more than in 1989. Nearly 10 million minors, a record number, have no health insurance. These are by far the worst numbers in the industrialized world.

Health care and child poverty are problems of a scope and depth that can only be responded to by the exercise of authority, led by active citizenship. The Greeks would have viewed our inactions on health care and child poverty as an abdication of the responsibilities of citizenship.

This abdication of citizenship is occurring not only at the federal level. In New York, the only state with a constitutional provision mandating care for the needy, a serious move is afoot to overturn that provision. This year Minnesota’s legislators overturned its statutory requirement to assist the poor.

Volunteerism is a crucial ingredient in a healthy society. But the effectiveness of volunteerism depends in part on broader societal decisions. A letter writer to the New York Times reflected on his volunteer efforts with children in East London and West Harlem in the 1950s. Mr. Edward Kent felt that his volunteerism had succeeded in East London because the citizens of Britain “had put in place the basic support for physical well-being (universal medical care, housing, education, food). In West Harlem, none of these were guaranteed. The single-parent children in London were prospering; those in Harlem were headed toward early, violent deaths.” In West Harlem a volunteer simply could not compensate for society’s failure to provide and enable.

President Clinton did not mention the word “governance”. Yet citizenship inherently requires the exercise of collective authority. Americans are disillusioned by the goings-on in Washington. But our anger toward big government should not inevitably translate into a rejection of the idea of governance itself. Even as we work as neighbors to improve the quality of life in our communities, we must claim our rights as citizens –in our town halls and county councils and state legislatures– to make the decisions that can truly solve the problems of the day.

David Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.