Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2007
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 20A

Democracy & Disobedience

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber


What Does It Mean To Be an American Citizen?


A question for us - for those of us who live and vote in the United States - is what common expectations ought we to have of one another as we begin the 21st century? What makes us good citizens?

Are we the citizens we want to be or can we, must we, do better? If we can do better, what qualities and attitudes do citizens need to have to guarantee the health and safety of a modern polity? And, perhaps, most importantly, where will the next generation of citizens be trained?

In thinking about this question for myself, although it is the sort of question that, surely, we need to think about together, I have come to believe that most of us, myself included, are pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, as Americans we want to be "left alone" to pursue our own individual dreams, hopes and desires; yet, on the other, we yearn to participate in a more meaningful public life in pursuit of goals that reflect our commonality rather than (merely) our differences.

Looking back on the decade prior to September 11th, it may appear, however, that we have resolved our competing impulses in one direction as opposed to the other, in the direction of a more private, less public side of ourselves. Indeed, it is part of the lore of what it means to be an American, that we are drawn to the value of privacy and a spirited independence.

Thaves 2007

Citizenship to most Americans tends to be viewed largely as a matter of rights rather than as a set of obligations and responsibilities, as a defensive strategy against the potential tyranny of the state. We are a "private " people, deeply concerned to preserve and protect an arena in which we can pursue matters that concern nobody else but ourselves and into which we believe no community has a right to intrude.

The distrust of public authorities dictating how we should spend our hard-earned capital was so much in evidence at the founding of the country that even today many Americans are inclined to be suspicious of public bodies and of public life in general.

Thaves 2007

This tendency in the American grain is undoubtedly healthy in its skepticism of all-too-powerful governors.

Thaves 2007

But I suspect, and in this suspicion I do not believe I am entirely alone, we may have become too private, too focused on rights, too individual to sustain a vital democracy in the new millennium.

If there is to be much hope for the future of democracy in America, we may need to become more public, more communal and more cognizant of our responsibilities towards one another.

Of course, this is not just for me to say; this is a conversation we all need to have, and one we need to have amongst ourselves and that is sometimes described as belonging to the national conversation. To the extent that there is any truth to this, those of you who registered for this course at Brandeis are also a part of of that conversation.

The Very Idea of Citizenship

Of course, not so long ago, it would have been difficult, if not impossible to have this conversation.

Indeed, citizens were never at the forefront of people's imagination in the early modern period. Machiavelli in The Prince (1513) writes of citizens as if they were spectators who "look on" as their leader "pretends to be somebody he's not." By the time we get to Shakespeare a little less than a century later, he does not even take the trouble to give citizens a name, calling them, in such plays as Julius Caesar, simply and uninspiringly "The 'First' and 'Second' Citizen." Much later when D. H. Lawrence tried to think of the worst thing he could say of Benjamin Franklin, he called him, "that GREAT citizen, Ben Franklin."

No doubt this brief excursus might lead us to conclude that citizens are a rather "dull" lot. Indeed most of us do not even think of ourselves as citizens, and if we do, it is not an occupation or role that first comes to mind. We are doctors and lawyers, and landscape architects and teachers, Jewish and Catholic, before we are citizens. Indeed if we view ourselves as citizens at all, we see ourselves as being so only every two or four years. We are citizens, if we are citizens at all, intermittently Even then, that is, even when we do exercise our citizenship rights and go to the polls, we are identified by the press and political analysts not as "citizens," but as "voters," a rather attenuated form of citizenship.

Gonna Vote 2004

Perhaps Rousseau, who already wrote in 1750 in his Discourse on Science and the Arts, got it right: "We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians," he wrote, " . . . we no longer have citizens." Like some rare species of bird sighted by a zealous amateur ornithologist, citizens are "rare birds" indeed.

A Martian coming down to earth might suppose the species to be extinct, finding early references in Plato's dialogues to Socrates as "a citizen of Athens" and late references in the book to the Broadway musical. Les Miserables, which already shows signs of a decline in the concept, since "citizens" there are "members of a Chorus" without particularity, "man barricades," and have the annoying habit at the slightest provocation of "bursting into song."

Poll Stampede Voter 2004

If voting is an example of civic engagement at its most minimal, it is -simultaneously - easy to measure. Studies of voting patterns at the end of the nineteenth century indicate the nearly four fifths of those eligible to vote went to the polls, not only in presidential elections but also in "off" years. From then on, however, the trend is not very encouraging. From 1896 to the end of the 1920's voting participation fell to as low as two-fifths, then started to climb again, reaching 60% when Kennedy was elected in 1960. It fell steadily again until now when only half of those eligible bother to vote at all.

Turnout 2007
Voter Participation in Seven Countries Over the Last 50 Years
World-wide Election Turnout

This cannot be good. It suggests - by this one measure at least - that we are less committed to the public's business and less virtuous than we were a little over a century ago.

A recent survey of American teenagers reveals that only 12% of them believe that voting is important to being a good citizen. To make matters worse, these results do not seem to be merely a function of youth. Comparison of teenage groups indicate that "the current cohort," as Mary Ann Glendon reports "knows less, cares less, votes less, and is less critical of its leaders and institutions than young people have been at any time over the past five decades."

There are some signs that this trend may be changing, if the reports on youth voter turnout at the most recent midterm elections are to be believed. But this news may be unique and to the last midterm election, however. Most signs point in the opposite direction, showing that voters are increasingly less inclined to show up at the polls than not. This overall trend is likely to make those who dream of revitalizing a sense of American citizenship extremely depressed.

Top-down v. Bottom-Up Approaches

In tune with this trend, political science classes that are taught in the United States have focused less on citizenship than one might like. I say "than one might like" because we live in a democracy and the most important role in such a form of government, one presumes, is the role of citizen. Instead there has been much emphasis in political studies on political leadership and the policies and decisions of politicians, such as Truman's decision to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or George Bush Senior's decision to begin the Gulf War. It's as if citizens in the modern world take a back seat to the political events of the day, acting more like fans at a sporting match than active participants themselves.

Thaves 2007

Perhaps Machiavelli had it right when he portrayed politics as a kind of theater, the Prince as an actor and the citizens of Florence as members of an audience, eager to applaud their leader's every move so long as what he did resulted in what was best for the principality as a whole.

Thaves 2007

But can this portrait provide a model for citizens in a vital democracy?

Citizenship-as-Legal-Status v. Citizenship-as-Activity

We - those of us who now live and vote in the modern democracies - are not inclined to view our membership in the political community solely in terms of spectatorship. Still many Americans see their roles as citizens solely as a legal status, rather than as an activity where the quality of one's citizenship is a function of the depth of one's commitment to participation in the political life of the democracy. A view of citizenship-as-legal-status focuses exclusively on citizenship rights and neglects a theory of citizenship that requires greater emphasis on responsibilities and virtues. Some writers have described these two conceptions of citizenship: as "thick" and "thin." Those who see citizenship as an activity rather than solely as a legal status, regard their view as a "thick" or "robust" vision of the citizen.

The view of citizenship-as-legal-status as opposed to an activity is called "private" or "passive" citizenship; what it means to be a citizen is largely a matter of securing a list of passive entitlements in the absence of any duty to participate in the public life of the community. Still, as Stephen Macedo has said, echoing many others, "the benefits of private citizenship are not to be sneezed at."

Indeed, it's a conception of citizenship that has preoccupied us throughout much of the postwar period, that is, the post-Second World War period until quite recently, until, I would say, the last ten years or so, when it has come under attack and begun to appear inadequate as a full-blown conception of what good citizenship in a democracy requires. The most important expression of this conception to emerge in the postwar period was T. H. Marshall's Citizenship and Social Class, which was published just after the war in 1949. Marshall argued that whatever else citizenship might be said to require, it required first and foremost that everyone be treated "as a full and equal member of society." And, he argued the best way to achieve this was to extend to all adult members of the society an increasing number of civil, political and social rights, i.e., a full and meaningful cornucopia of citizenship rights. Political rights, which in the early days of the Republic were enjoyed by only a few property-owning Protestant men have now been extended to women, blacks, Jews and Catholics and other previously excluded minorities. So, too, certain basic social rights have been established - to public education, unemployment insurance, social security benefits, and various forms of health care. These benefits are indeed "not to be sneezed at."

But in the last few years this postwar conception of citizenship-as-rights has come under increasing criticism. The postwar conception with its passive acceptance of citizenship entitlements is now seen as being in need of supplement (or replacement) by the exercise of citizenship responsibilities and virtues. So, too, some have begun to suspect that a conception of citizenship-as-rights is inadequate in and of itself to establish a sense of public spiritedness, a sense of commonality, among the members of a democracy. Is it sufficient to sustain our democracy merely by including historically disadvantaged groups on an equal basis or do certain qualities and attitudes among members of the community also need to be specifically cultivated?

Perhaps there are just too many of us and a conception of citizenship-as-rights is all we can realistically hope for. As states become larger, citizenship activity becomes more and more unwieldy. Yet Aristotle defined democracy, not as "a method for selecting one's governors," but as "participation in ruling." One recalls the phrase ingrained in the Declaration of Independence that ours is a government "of the people, by the people and for the people." So, we might wonder, paraphrasing the title of a famous Dylan song of the 1960s: "Where Have All the Citizens Gone?"

Where indeed? Should we then throw up our hands in despair and not even begin to think of ways to cultivate a more active citizenry?

Thaves 2007

Let us start with voting, despite the fact that there is likely to be more to good citizenship in a democracy than an occasional visit to the polls every two to four years.

Thaves 2007

What might be done to bring more Americans eligible to vote to the polls?

Proposals for Reform

Here, quickly then, are a number of suggestions for electoral reform. Some will be familiar to you, some less so. You may wish to discuss each proposal before moving on to the next. So, too, you may also wish to add several proposals of your own.

It is sometimes suggested that the American people are simply "apathetic," that so many do not vote because they are "too lazy" or "do not care." See, for example, the Michael Ramirez cartoon "I have to get out of my chair to vote?" in "Tuning in the Turnout." While there may be some truth to these criticisms of the American electorate, a more obvious explanation for low voter turnout is to see it as a "rational" response to the situation at hand. Many may simply not bother to vote because they sense that their vote will not count or that their voice will not be heard.

Alien Opinion 2004

Surely if you believe that your vote will not count or that it will be ineffective, there is little incentive to vote. The response "Why bother?" would be an understandable response of a reasonable citizen who genuinely believed that his or her vote did not matter.

I. Citizenship as a Legal Status and Electoral Renewal

A right to vote is surely key to citizenship and so it is perhaps surprising that there is no such right explicitly granted in the U. S. Constitution. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has frequently stressed that a vote is absolutely essential because "it is preservative of other basic civil and political rights." A right to vote, however, is more easily protected in theory than in practice and the mere possession of such a right cannot mean very much if the vote to which one purportedly has a right does not count or turns out to be effectively useless. For a right to vote to carry any political weight it must also be a right to a vote that counts, and to a voice that is heard, coupled with a civic education that prepares each and every citizen to take advantage of the opportunity "for full and effective participation."

In the 2000 presidential election many were surprised to learn that sometimes not all votes are counted. As things turned out, votes were sometimes not counted for a variety of reasons - due to out-of-date voting machines in some cases, or poorly designed ballots in others leaving voters confused about how to mark their ballots in such a way that it would register a vote for the candidate of their choice. So, too, a vote might not have been counted in the aftermath of the election because counters picked to recount "under votes" disagreed over whether a "chad" of a punch-card ballot had become detached or whether, according to instructions issued by the Florida Supreme Court, they were unable to find, considering the ballot as a whole, "a clear intention" of the voter to vote."

A National Ballot

The natural remedy for this would be for American citizens to direct Congress to establish a uniform set of election procedures which would include the design and provision of a standard National Ballot.

A National Election Commission

Congress should also establish a National Election Commission with supervisory powers over all national elections. If and when disputes arose, they could be resolved by officials of this agency who would be appointed on a nonpartisan basis, subject to review, as some have suggested, by federal judges with life tenure rather than by state partisan political officials, such as secretary of state Katherine Harris and elected state judges as was the case in Florida.

Uniform Election Machinery

Uniform Election Machinery The public should further demand that Congress fund a National Election Commission to enable it to design and finance electronic voting equipment or computers that clearly display voters' initial choices and make it possible for voters to confirm those choices, with a warning to voters if they inadvertently make a double choice in a single category. No doubt security protections and reliable digital identification systems would also need to be developed.

Expanding Polling Hours

Citizens should further demand that polling places be open for the same time periods across all time zones in the country so the polls close simultaneously at one and the same time throughout the nation. So, too, some public discussion should probably take place about the value of changing the day of the national election from a Tuesday, a workday, to a Sunday. If this is not possible, given the strong religious sentiments of many Americans, consideration might be given to expanding the number of days of polling. Several European countries now put aside two days for national elections, making it easier for voters to find time to get to the polls. If religious concerns are taken into account, this would not only rule out Sunday, but Saturday as well, the Jewish day of rest and Friday, too, a holy day for most Muslims.

Time Zones and Press Coverage

Television networks should be barred from reporting election results in one time zone before polls have closed in another.

Abolition of the Electoral College and the Direct Election of the President

The 2000 National election made it plain how antiquated our current system is. For one of the few times in our history, candidates for President and Vice-President won in the Electoral College but not in the popular vote. Most Americans see the point of the election process, and especially the election of the President, the one political office that we all vote on together, as a reflection of the will of the people. The original authors of the United States Constitution saw the matter differently.

Electoral College

They simply did not trust "the people" to elect the President directly, preferring to erect the rather Byzantine apparatus of an Electoral College, attended by what the Framers of the Constitution believed would be independent and knowledgeable representatives appointed by the individual states, and who would be capable of deciding for themselves who the next President and Vice-President should be.

Electoral College

On the heels of the 2000 election an opportunity arises to rid us of this relic and incontrovertibly elitist system and replace it with the direct election of the President and Vice President by popular vote.

Electoral College

But some have argued that this move will incline candidates to campaign and spend money only in populous states such as New York and California and ignore the smaller states, but this outcome is not as clear as it might at first appear. Under the current system almost no time was spent by either presidential candidate in New York because both parties saw New York as "safe" for the Democrats. If we switch to a national popular election format, candidates are likely to campaign wherever they think they might pick up undecided votes and that could happen anywhere. The smaller states nonetheless see "some advantage" in the antiquated system and would perhaps block an Amendment to the Constitution that would be necessary to eliminate the Electoral College.

Electoral College

Still what do you think? Would you like to see the Electoral College abolished in favor of the direct election of the President and Vice-President?

Raffles, Prizes and other Incentives

Some have suggested that a way to get more eligible voters to the polls is to give them incentives to vote - by letting them enter their numbered voting stubs in a lottery for a turkey or a year's supply of baked goods or a second car.

Thaves 2007

Others worry that while turnout may increase slightly, to do so undermines the point and purpose of elections and destroys the seriousness of the occasion. What do you think? Are you in favor of some sort of incentive system?

Mail-in Ballots

Getting to the polls is not always easy and so some have suggested that we allow voters who find it difficult to get to the polls, to vote by mail as we now allow absentee ballots. See Oregon's New Mail-in Ballot Sysytem. John Stuart Mill was opposed to postal balloting when it was proposed in England in the mid-nineteenth century in England. He believed that a trip to the polls was a sign of civic engagement and commitment to the process and was worried that the voter who was allowed to sit at home and fill out a postcard would take his role as an elector in too frivolous a light. What do you think? Would you be in favor or opening up the process of mail-in ballots? See also Mail-in Ballot Tracker.

Online Voting

The contemporary equivalent of the mail-in ballot is the proposal to enable citizens to vote online or over the Internet. Here again digital identification would need to be foolproof and security precautions watertight. But presuming these conditions were met, would you be in favor of online voting? See also Can the Internet Rescue Democracy? Toward an On-line Commons

The Depth of the Problem

Of course, sometimes even when all votes are counted, not all votes matter. Or to put the point slightly differently, there are a variety of ways that votes can fail to count, and such failure can come about not only as the result of antiquated voting machines or poorly designed ballots. Political analysts, for example, note that any election which is won by a margin of 10% or greater was probably not competitive. In 1996, 201 of 211 seats in the New York State Assembly were won by margins of 10% or more. Thus there were 201 "safe" seats. This may have been "good" for the incumbent or the member of one or another of the major parties, but was it good for the voter? See Safe Seats: Tailor Made for Incumbents. In all 201 cases we might say citizens in those districts were in effect politically impotent. They cast their votes, but their votes made no difference to the outcome.

Their votes did not matter; they did not count. Spoiled ballots may be one way votes do not get counted; there are other, perhaps more troubling ways.

One Person-One Vote v. Preference Voting

In 1970 James Buckley of the Conservative Party won election to the U. S. Senate from New York by defeating the incumbent Republican Charles Goodell and the Democrat Richard Ottinger with a plurality of 38% of the vote. In this case the two more "liberal" candidates received 60% of the vote, yet failed to defeat the conservative. So you might say, the more liberal policies preferred by the majority, were overwhelmed by a minority of staunchly conservative citizens. If the system had not been "one person, one vote" but instead had been conducted under a preference voting scheme, the citizens could mark their choices in order of preference, by placing the number 'one', 'two', or 'three' next to the names of each of the candidates. The majority's wishes would have prevailed and either Goodell or Ottinger would have won. See also Preference Voting and Preference Voting v. Cumulative Voiting

Much the same might be said of the recent French election where 17 candidates competed in the first round for the French presidency and in which Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the extreme right, squeezed out the popular Prime Minister Lionel Jospin by winning just 17% of the vote. All the polls predicted a tight race between Jospin and President Jacques Chirac, only to have Le Pen squeak past Jospin who received just 16% of the vote in a large field. Again, under a system of preference voting, where French voters could vote for the candidates in order of preference, Chirac and a more liberal candidate would have been finalists in the next round since liberal-left candidates had the support of more than 60% of the voters. In Florida in 2000, Gore would have won under a preference voting scheme since Nader, for example took 12% of the vote: one assumes that Nader and Gore would have been higher on the list of preferences among voters sympathetic to either candidate than Bush or Buchanan. When you think three-person races such as the race between Buckley, Goodell and Ottinger in 1970 for the U. S. Senate, wouldn't such a scheme be fairer, even more democratic than "one person, one vote?"

Proportional Representation

There is a voting system that does make it possible for all the votes of all citizens to count. Proportional Representation (PR) is the system employed by most modern democracies, although not here in the United States, and it is the most effective antidote to the tactics of gerrymanders who manipulate the geography of districting to disenfranchise segments of the voting population. See How Does PR Work?. Imagine that there are 100 seats in a State assembly. Imagine, too, that there are four parties: a Democratic Party, a Republican Party, a Green Party, and a Conservative Party. Each fields a hundred candidates. Say the Democrats get 35% of the vote statewide, the Republicans 39%, the Greens 19%, and the Conservatives 7%. As a result of the state wide elections, the Democrats would get 35 seats, the Republicans 39, the Green Party 19, and the Conservatives 7. No vote would have been wasted. Each citizen's vote would have counted, since each voted for a candidate of his or her choice, and, in each instance, seats were "won" in the Assembly. See also for more detail Readings in Proportional Representation.

A Proportional Representation does allow more citizens to participate in a meaningful way in elections and would provide each citizen with an opportunity for "full and effective participation" in the political system. Compared to the current system is it more democratic. What do you think? Are you sympathetic to the sorts of benefits that a system of Proportional Representation can provide?

Compulsory Voting

Of course, if we are really concerned about political participation and voter turnout, why not require voting to be compulsory as it is in countries like Australia, Belgium and Luxembourg. See What is Compulsory Voting?.There is little doubt that by making voting compulsory, participation in elections will increase. See Which Countries Practice Compulsory Voting. Australia has the longest history and experience with compulsory voting. In all three cases turnout is very high. In each case a fine is levied if and when a citizen fails to vote. It is not large. In Australia, I believe, it amounts to the equivalent of approximately 25 U.S. dollars, not much more than a parking ticket, but it seems to be enough of a stigma to have such a fine imposed on oneself to give most Australian citizens an incentive to "turn out." In Australia the fine may be waived if a citizen has an appropriate excuse. The biggest obstacle to introducing compulsory voting here in the United States is likely to be the widely held view of voting as a right rather than an obligation or a responsibility. In Australia, it is the conception of citizenship itself that serves as the deepest reason to vote. There, citizenship is viewed as an "office" that each individual citizen holds and that has both rights and responsibilities associated with it. Three such responsibilities are national service, voting and jury duty. A number of countries have, nonetheless, adopted compulsory voting as part and parcel of the electoral systems.

What do you think? Are you in favor or opposed to compulsory voting? Here is where many of us are caught in a dilemma. We value the rights we have and yet, we bemoan low voter turnout, and yet we are reluctant to introduce any policies or programs that would restrict our rights.

II. Citizenship as an Activity and Civic Virtue

No doubt if half of the reforms, listed above, came to fruition, the shape of our civic life would change dramatically, but even if all of them were put into place, a side of what it takes to be a good citizen would still be absent. There was a time - several of the Founders seemed to think this way - when it was believed that democracy could flourish without a virtuous citizenry. By creating separate powers and checks and balances, a House and a Senate, a federal system of somewhat autonomous states, and a judiciary to serve and protect minority rights, it was thought tyranny and oppression could be prevented without great vigilance on the part of the citizenry. Individual citizens might pursue their private interests without an eye on the common good, and the public interest would, as it were, "care for itself" so long as private interest checked private interest checked private interest. But the belief that certain procedures and institutional arrangements alone might do the trick has come to appear less convincing. Indeed in the absence of a fairly heavy dose of public-spiritedness from an engaged and virtuous citizenry, the public interest is likely to atrophy and die. Just think how any number of public commitments require some degree of civic virtue to have any hope of being successful. If citizens are not willing to reuse, recycle, or reduce their consumption of energy, it is hard for the government to protect the environment. If citizens do not care for themselves by engaging in regular exercise, consuming a healthy diet and resisting cigarettes, it is hard for the government to provide adequate health care; and if citizens are exceedingly intolerant of one another's differences, it is hard for the government to establish a more just society.

But if the governments need cooperation and restraint from the citizenry, citizens need help in cultivating the virtues essential to good citizenship. Where are these virtues to be learned?

The Marketplace

More than two centuries ago, Montesquieu, writing in his Spirit of the Laws, saw commerce and the marketplace as an arena in which individuals might be schooled in the quieter passions. He spoke of "dou" ("sweet") commerce, a far cry from the picture of commercial society that one finds in Dickens in the mid-nineteenth century in Oliver Twist or Hard Times. The "belching" mills of Manchester would hardly have seemed "sweet" and the use of child labor less sweet still. Yet to Montesquieu looking at modern commercial activity closer to its inception, it appeared to him to offer a training ground for self-discipline and restraint and produced a gentler, calmer people than the religious zealots and political fanatics on the streets of Paris. To Montesquieu, commerce was a school of civility, helping to form both the human character and competence necessary for good citizenship in a Republic. I mention Montesquieu's vision if only to show how far we have come. Today in the wake of the collapse of Enron and the world, the arrest of Mike Milken for securities fraud, and the shredding of documents at Arthur Anderson, the marketplace is hardly perceived as a "school of virtue."

Political Participation

Aristotle and Rousseau emphasized the intrinsic worth of political participation, arguing that on the one hand, political life was "the highest form of human-living together that most individuals can aspire to" and, on the other hand, that by being active in public life individuals acquire the capacities and attitudes of mind that are necessary to be good citizens. Political participation itself, on this view, will teach civility, tolerance and responsibility. But such faith in the educative possibilities of political participation seems less compelling in light of low voter turnout and the general indifference to public life that accompanies it.

As has been noted, "most people find the greatest happiness in their family, work, religion, or leisure, not in politics." Modern civic republicans seek to explain the indifference to public life in its impoverishment, "compared to the active citizenship of, say, the ancient Greeks." No doubt there is some truth in this, but, then again, as others have argued "it is more plausible to view our attachment to private life as a result not of the impoverishment of public life but the enrichment of private life. We no longer seek gratification in politics because our personal and social life is so much richer than the Greeks."

Voluntary and Secondary Associations

So if neither the marketplace nor political participation will suffice, where might we learn the virtues essential to good citizenship? There has been a tradition in America, first observed, perhaps, by Tocqueville that finds value and meaning in the voluntary organizations in the society - in synagogues, churches, unions, neighborhood groups, ethnic associations, cooperatives, non-profit groups, charities, men's and women's support groups, sports clubs, and environmental groups. It is here, in these organizations that, as Mary Ann Glendon has written, "human character, competence and capacity for citizenship are formed."

But is this true? Tocqueville believed certainly that the local town meeting and similar types of voluntary organizations were the "seedbed of civic virtue," teaching participants the art of public deliberation, cooperation and trust. A closer look, however, at the track record of a great variety of contemporary voluntary organizations creates a mixed result at best. Some organizations might be held up as model associations, teaching the very things that good citizens must master if the democracy is to stay healthy and strong. But some churches teach deference to authority and intolerance of other faiths. Some ethnic associations often teach prejudice against other ethnic groups. Robert Putnam, who recently did a study of the current state of voluntary organizations in America, first in an article intriguingly titled "Bowling Alone" and then in a book of the same name, found that membership in any number of organizations, was "up," although membership was an extremely attenuated form of participation. So, for example, Sierra Club membership has increased but now there are far fewer "activist" members and many more subscribers, members who simply pay an annual fee in exchange for Sierra Magazine. So, too, many join various voluntary associations, in particular religious and ethnic groups, to retreat from the society at large rather than to learn civic virtue.

Public Education

So if not in the marketplace or from political participation itself or in voluntary associations, wherein might the next generation of citizens be trained?

Do Your Homework 2007

The most obvious alternative, of course, are the public schools themselves. So, too, of all the virtues that citizens in a modern democracy need to acquire - the ability to question authority and the capacities needed to engage in public deliberation - are best learned in school. Here now I am not thinking of high school civics on the order of a set of facts about political institutions or the memorization of the names of the American Presidents. I am thinking of capacities of mind and spirit. See Improving Civic Understanding and Engagement in the Schools.

The ability to question authority is important in a democracy, of course, because the people elect representatives who purportedly represent their will, and the people need the capacity to judge whether that will has been represented and whether their representatives are doing their job and conducting themselves in ways that should continue to hold office. The capacities required to deliberate with others in public are more complex, but equally critical in a democracy. Decisions in a democracy are made in free and open discussion and so discussion and the capacity to participate in it is a key element of what it means to be a good citizen. Indeed, theorists, such as John Stuart Mill defined democracy as "government by public discussion." The virtue of public discourse is also not just a readiness to participate in discussion with others about the public business, it requires the capacity to make one's views known and to make them known in such a way that they are understood and heard. It includes the capacity, as William Galston has stressed, "to listen seriously to a range of views which, given the diversity of liberal societies, will include ideas the listener is bound to find strange and even obnoxious." It is not enough just to make pronouncements or make threats or shout one's views, but to present them persuasively and without manipulation. One must learn, too, how to convince others of the value of one's own ideas in light of reasons that they can recognize and might find minimally reasonable. Hence it will not do to quote merely the Koran or the Bible in defense of one's views if one is seeking to persuade the body of citizens as a whole. Public deliberation by citizens in a democracy requires citizens to be justified on the basis of private faith and those that might be capable of public defense.

These capacities to question and speak and listen to what others have to say are, however, simple as they may sound and not without controversy. To teach children to be skeptical of political authority and to step back from their own religious and cultural traditions in the course of defending their views is likely to lead children to question their parents' choices, as well as to question tradition and religious authority in private life. And, as a result, not unsurprisingly, traditionalists have objected. Based on concerns such as these, the Amish sought to withdraw their children from the public school system, and won a limited victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). The victory granted the Old Order Amish the right to take their children out of school at the age of sixteen to forestall the complete erosion of Amish traditional beliefs by the core principles of the democracy.

So, again, we encounter a problem that reflects our competing impulses to satisfy two sides of ourselves - a private and public side. The solution, if solution there be, must come in striking the right balance between the two. But what do you think? Do you believe that the public school system should teach civic virtue and specifically the ability to question authority and the capacities needed to engage one another in public discourse? See Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools

Lowering the Voting Age in Municipal
Elections to 16 (The High School Vote)

Cities have the authority to set the requirements for voting in city elections and for city council members, and, armed with this authority several cities in the United States have decided to "experiment" by reducing the voting age to sixteen for city-wide elections to allow high school students to get involved in the political process before they turn eighteen. There are often several arguments given for making this move: one, that it would increase interest in politics among the young, that it would influence apathetic parents of these young adults to take an interest again in political process (called the "trickle up" effect), and that school projects could be organized around the upcoming municipal elections. What do you think? Are you in favor of lowering the voting to 16 in city elections? Would you support the proposal if it were on the ballot in your city? See, too, Mary Fitzgerald study on electoral reforms that are likely to encourage more young people to vote. See Easier Voting Methods Boost Youth Turnout.

III. Civic Engagement and Civic Renewal

September 11th has come and gone and it is perhaps, still too soon to tell in what ways we - all of us - are a different people. Before that fateful day the present administration was, or so it seemed, headed towards a withdrawal from the rest of the world. There was talk from Rumsfeld and others in the Defense Department that the Clinton administration had become involved in too many conflicts around the globe. The new folks in town told us that we would be picking our fights more carefully now, and that we would become involved only if our most central national interests were at stake. And then the terrorists struck and we were reminded in a most devastating way that we are not alone.

Many Americans, not only New Yorkers, found themselves looking to and receiving comfort from Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York, whose presence in the days following the attacks seemed to transcend his own individual identity. Giuliani came to represent a larger ideal in spite of himself. He spoke for us and came to represent what we held in common. There was an outpouring of respect and admiration not only for the Mayor of New York, but for the fire fighters and police officers, a police force not held in the highest esteem during Giuliani's tenure in office. From a people who take a lively interest in their own private affairs, there was a burst of sentiment for public figures and for those men and women engaged in the public's business.

For many of us who not only witnessed these events but lived through them as well wonder whether this outpouring of public-spiritedness will have a lasting effect on the American political culture. Will the public spirit triggered by September 11th, so spontaneous and genuine at the time, spill over into other areas of our social and political life or will it stay wedded to national security concerns? Will it and the recognition that we are not alone in the world that accompanied it temper American individualism and the isolating effects of a too narrowly drawn self-interest?

In looking back on the 2000 National Election through the lens of September 11th, what now seems more troubling than the spoiled ballots and outdated voting machinery is the way we "see" ourselves as citizens. Citizenship is not just an amalgam of a specified set of rights and responsibilities. It is also an identity, an expression of one's membership in a political community.

John Stuart Mill, writing nearly a century and half-ago, expressed concern about English plans to adopt a secret ballot for national elections. When I first read what Mill had to say I found his remarks to be puzzling. Now, however, they make sense to me and I repeat them here with a certain kind of nostalgia. What I realized some time after my first reading of Mill, and what may appear obvious to you today, was that he was not so much speaking about the electoral reform itself as he was about the identity of the kind of citizen the reform would have a tendency to encourage.

Writing in 1859, Mill's complaint may seem oddly out-of-date with respect to the secret ballot. But England had not yet adopted a secret ballot. Indeed a secret ballot was not established in England until 1872, and we did not adopt a secret ballot in this country until the 1890s, although Kentucky was the first state to do so in 1888.

In any event, here is what Mill said and what I found so puzzling. The problem with a secret ballot, he wrote, "is that the electors will come to think of the vote as something for their own use and benefit to dispense with as they see fit." This was puzzling since I thought to myself, "Isn't that what a vote is: something for my own use and benefit to dispense with as I see fit?" Then I read further, but what Mill went on to say only made matters still more puzzling. The problem, he continued, is that voters will come to think of their vote "as a right" and of themselves as "consumers shopping for policies in their interests. But, I found myself saying to myself, "Isn't that how voters think of themselves? Isn't that how we think of ourselves?" And then it dawned on me!

Mill had a different conception of a citizen than many of us now do. The difference between our two conceptions could not be more dramatic. For Mill the citizen sees the vote as a "public trust" and asks the question: "What is good for us?" Most American citizens see their vote as a private right and ask "What is good for me?" For Mill the question is: "Shall we have more public schools?" For many American citizens this same question has become: "Do I want to pay more taxes?"

Which one are you and which question is most appropriate for citizens in a democracy to ask?


Paper Topic Question
Credit/No Credit:

Make a case for or against democratizing the democracy.

As a first step, take the Great American 2007 Election Quiz. Then make a case for or against democratizing the democracy by arguing for or against improving democratic citizenship as a legal status and as an activity, think of one or two powerful objections to your case and respond to them.

In arguing for or against improving citizenship as a legal status argue for or against three distinct electoral reforms that you think might result in the voices (votes) of citizens in a democracy being both heard and counted.

In arguing for or against improving citizenship as an activity, make a case for or against two changes within the public realm that you believe will help to cultivate attitudes and beliefs (the development of virtues) appropriate to good citizenship in a strong democracy.

Feel free to draw on the reading, on Robert Paul Wolff's "In Defense of Anarchism," in particular Part Three and on Robert Dahl's "On Democracy." Both offer several suggestions for democratizing democracy, if in a general, broad-brush stroke, sweeping way. Feel free to draw on and make use of those improvements and/or suggested electoral reforms proposed in "The Great American 2007 Election Quiz."

Extra Credit

If you would take a shot at receiving "extra credit" which could improve any one of your graded papers in the course by a third of a grade, thus turning, for examples, a B (3.0) into a B+ (3.3) or an A- (3.67) into an A (4.0), you must answer following questions:

(1) Wolff: In Part Three of "In Defense of Anarchism" Robert Paul Wolff makes several suggestions for improving the democracy, for making it more democratic. What are his main suggestions for improvement. Are they feasible? Do you agree or disagree with Wolff on this score? If so, why? If not, why not?

(2) Dahl: So, too Robert Dahl makes several suggestions throughout "On Democracy" for improving the democracy and making a democracy more democratic. What are his main suggestions for improvement? Are they feasible? Do you agree or disagree with Dahl on this score? If so, why. If not, why not?

"Extra credit" papers or papers that aim for a "extra credit" should be an additional three to five pages in length or (again) longer if you wish.





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