Are we the citizens we want to be or can we do better?
If we can do better, what capacities do citizens need to acquire to guarantee the vitality of a modern democracy?
President Obama clearly wants us to do better.
He spoke of citizenship at various times during the campaign. Near the end of his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention he said: "we believe in something called 'citizenship,' a word at the heart of our founding" and in his victory speech in Chicago, "the role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote."
The two speeches echo and repeat one another. In his acceptance speech he said "we, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights," adding "that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others . . . is unworthy of our founding ideals."
But many Americans are pulled in two directions.
On the one hand, many yearn to participate in a more meaningful public life in pursuit of goals that reflect a common purpose, as Obama suggests, yet many, some of these very same citizens, want to be "left alone" to pursue our own life plans.
So too, most Americans regard citizenship as a matter of rights rather than a set of responsibilities, as a defensive strategy against governors and a government perceived to be poised to interfere in the lives of its citizens.
Americans are, at best, "reluctant" citizens. If we become engaged, we become active in civic life intermittently. Our reluctance to participate, however, may not be unique to us, but part of a larger trend. Already in 1750 Rousseau complained:
"We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, and painters in plenty; but we have no longer a citizen among us; or if there be found a few scattered over our abandoned countryside, they are left to perish there unnoticed and neglected."
Shakespeare, at the brink of modernity, in Julius Caesar does not even bother to give citizens a name, identifying them simply as "The First" and "Second Citizen." If they have a role to play, they're bit players in the game of politics and, with only a number for a name, come off as a rather dull lot.
More recently, when D. H. Lawrence tried to think of the worst thing he could call Benjamin Franklin, he called him: "that GREAT citizen, Ben Franklin."
American sentiments about voting reflect a similar set of attitudes and beliefs which, in turn, fit the political culture's understanding of what it means to be an American citizen.