The Idea of Citizenship

Below are remarks President Kent Trachte delivered during Lycoming’s Phi Kappa Phi Induction Ceremony on April 12, 2014.


During the time that I was at Franklin & Marshall, I regularly taught courses for the Department of Government. Early on, those courses focused on the concept of power and drew upon the literature in the subfield of international relations. About 15 years ago, however, I decided to make a change because I became particularly interested in the idea of citizenship. This interest was driven by my desire to think in a systematic way about the historic mission of liberal arts colleges that involves preparing students to participate in democratic society. 

I asked myself, what did that mean? And what might be the best way to pursue that objective? So I spent a summer vacation re-familiarizing myself with the literature on the concept of citizenship. During the next year, I developed a course called “The Idea of Citizenship” that I co-taught with a member of the economics department and another faculty member interested in legal ethics. I ended up co-teaching that course at least eight times over the 15 with five different faculty members. So, when I was asked to deliver the Phi Kappa Phi lecture, it seemed natural that I should choose the idea of citizenship as my topic. I also figured that since I had an inauguration address to write, I should fall back on a topic where I might have some ready materials that I could draw upon. So here goes: The Idea of Citizenship.

Theorizing about citizenship has a long history that can be traced at least as far back as Aristotle but during the middle of the 20th century scholarly interest in the concept waned. Citizenship came to be associated primarily with and thought about as something taught in elementary and secondary school civics lessons. For example, a 1978 article reviewing literature on theories of democracy stated that it was widely agreed that the concept of citizenship had gone out of fashion among political thinkers.

Scholarly interest in the idea was revived during the 1990s, however, with the publication of several important books that contended that citizenship in America was under siege and that we were witnessing a decline in the vitality of American democracy. This was followed by the emergence of a serious scholarly examination of the idea of the “global citizen.”

In this talk, I will explore three questions:  What is a good citizen?  What is the state of citizenship in the United States?  What type of education is required to become a good citizen?

What is a good citizen: the republican and liberal viewpoints

Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel has argued that in the United States there have been two contending public philosophies that answer differently the question: “What is a good citizen?” The first one is the republican tradition (small r not to be confused with the Republican Party). The second is the liberal tradition (not to be confused with the contemporary usage of the term liberal). The two philosophies have different views about public life and different answers to the question: What is a good citizen?

In the republican tradition, a good citizen is understood to be someone who demonstrates a concern for the whole and views herself as having formed a moral bond with others who compose the community in which they live. The republican citizen possesses civic virtue and can transcend their narrow private interests.  She embraces deliberating with other members of the community.

In the realm of economic policy, the republican tradition sees the good citizen concerning herself with how different economic policies impact the health of our polity and issues of economic inequality. The republican would applaud our recent public discussion about income inequality and the minimum wage. The good citizen in the republican tradition is deeply engaged in political life, conversant with the major issues of public debate, and informed as a voter.

Given these expectations, this tradition worries about income inequality having an adverse impact upon our democracy. Writers from this perspective are concerned that a person of modest means working long hours to make ends meet may not have the time to devote to matters of public life. Put another way, citizens from a disadvantaged background may lack the material and social independence to develop an independence of mind needed to be a good citizen. A republican favors improvements in the economic condition of the least well off, at least in part because it puts those so situated in a better position to participate in political life.

The liberal tradition offers a contrasting viewpoint as to the nature of good citizenship. In this tradition, politics is seen as a realm where passions and individual interests are contested. Therefore, the good citizen is someone who enters the fray to pursue and support her passions and interests. She is more concerned with protecting her own rights than determining the public good.

In this tradition, civic virtue is not relied upon to promote good government. Rather it is assumed that the contest of interests mediated by checks and balances so as those delineated in the American constitution will guarantee good government. The good citizen in this tradition tends to value individual liberty more than the public good and eschews regulations.

A good citizen in the liberal tradition is not likely to focus on income inequality. Rather, in this tradition a good citizen is someone who believes deeply in market rationality as the best way to resolve conflicts over a share of the wealth.

The liberal tradition tends to demand or expect less of the good citizen. In the Federalist Papers, for example, Madison advocated for a representative government where the people choose representatives who are better than themselves, representatives who are known for virtue and wisdom and who have experience and training in speaking before an assembled group, and who are capable of listening and voting in the public interest. The role of the good citizen is to assess the character of representatives and to monitor in broad terms the effectiveness of the representative in advancing the interests of the citizens who have elected her.

Voting, Political Parties and Citizenship

Many of us tend to think of voting as the primary, if not only, responsibility of a citizen. We also focus on the role of political parties in facilitating citizenship. Parties are seen as vehicles by which candidates create symbols, develop organizational structures and raise financial resources.

The generation of leaders who wrote the American Constitution, however, was actually suspicious of political association of all kinds, including parties. They feared that parties would promote partial interests rather than the common good. In his farewell address, Washington wrote, for example, “all combinations and Associations…are destructive…They serve to organize factions,…to make the public administration the Mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

Despite the opposition of Washington and the others of his generation, political parties emerged as part of the American political landscape. During the election of 1800, the federalist and democrat factions faced off. By the time of the elections of Andrew Jackson in 1828 and 1832, the Democratic Party had emerged as a force in American politics. Parties came to be viewed as the primary mechanism through which the good citizen became engaged in politics, learned the positions of the candidates and were mobilized to vote.

Civil Society and Citizenship

Observers of the American political system have also regularly remarked upon the vital nature in the United States of something called civil society. Despite the concerns of Washington and Madison, in addition to political parties, other private associations emerged during the early 19th century and grew in numbers and membership until the mid-20th century.

This phenomenon received considerable attention when during the first part of the 19th century the French writer de Tocqueville observed that Americans formed associations at “all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions.” He went on to observe that the variety of organizations was particularly profound:  commercial, industrial, religious, moral, serious, futile, very general, very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give celebrations, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons and schools take shape that way…if they want to claim a truth or propagate some feeling the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.”

The concept of civil society has also received considerable attention in more contemporary political theory and connections have been made between civil society and citizenship. For example, in 1963, influential American political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba published The Civic Culture, a book that demonstrated with new data that Americans were especially likely to join and play active roles in voluntary associations. They also suggested that this behavior was healthy for our democratic government.

Subsequent to Almond and Verba, research has uncovered evidence that supports the argument the extent of civic engagement “powerfully affects the performance of representative government.” (Putnam) Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs—all these things and others—have been found to be associated with successful government.

More recently, Robert Putnam and other social scientists have developed a concept for explaining how it is that a strong civil society improves the performance of government. They use the concept of social capital, which has been defined as:  “…features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” In this sense, social capital is like ideas of physical capital and human capital--tools and training that enhance individual productivity.

According to Putnam, political systems functions better in communities “blessed with a substantial stock of social capital.” Several explanations are offered for this relationship. First, networks of civic engagement foster what is called “generalized reciprocity” and encourage the emergence of social trust. The networks also help to facilitate communication and make it easier to resolve problems of collective interest. Third, incentives for opportunism are reduced. Finally, networks of civic engagement contain a history of past success at collaboration, which can serve as a guide for future success with collaboration.

From this work, we can conclude that a good citizen is someone engaged in voluntary associations, and a builder of social capital.

Citizenship and Rights

How about rights?  How do political rights connect to citizenship?

There are analysts who argue that the exercise of rights has become the primary marker of citizenship. Michael Schudson, for example, has characterized the most recent period of American political history as a revolution in rights defined by—a growing inclination of people and organizations to define politics in terms of rights, a growing willingness of the federal government to enforce claims to constitutional rights and a widening of the domain of politics propelled by a rights consciousness.

From Schudsen’s perspective the courts have become a locus of political activity—a place where rights claims are asserted and adjudicated. The Supreme Court has played a particularly important role in expanding the scope of the Bill of Rights. In a series of decisions the Court has held that some of the rights in the Bill of Rights are so fundamental that they necessarily apply to the states: freedom of thought, speech and concept of due process. This new model sees the courtroom as well as the voting booth as a locus of citizenship.  (Schudson, p. 250)

This approach to citizenship has been termed rights-centered citizenship. It suggests that the good citizen is one who is active in organizations that assert the rights of individuals. The civil rights movement illustrates this perspective and has served as a model for a wide array of new social movements and political organizations. These movements effectively made litigation into a tool of social change.

The National Rifle Association is an example of a conservative organization that is focused on rights consciousness; it is an organization through which individuals assert what they see as their right to bear arms. From this viewpoint, the good citizen is someone who supports organizations that protect her rights.

The State of Citizenship in the United States

I turn now to the state of citizenship in the United States. As I mentioned in my introduction, since 1990 several important books have argued that American democracy is in an unhealthy state.

One line of argument has noted a decline in participation in voting, participation in political parties and time spent involved with those organizations that compose civil society. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, whom I mentioned earlier, amasses an enormous amount of data to support his argument that since about 1960, the United States has gone through a period in which social capital has declined. In his view, Americans spend less time engaged as citizens. Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol has also written on this subject in her book Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. As her title implies, Skocpol also probes the nature of voluntary associations. She concludes that being a member in a managed association like AARP is very different and less “citizen-like” than membership in older voluntary associations like the Elks and the Odd Fellows.

The evidence to support the argument of a decline in voting is quite persuasive. Between 1960 and 1996, turnout in presidential, off year and local elections fell by 25 percent. In a related statistic, public interest in current events had ebbed by about 20 percent over the last quarter of the 20th century. Depending upon how one measures it, voter turnout recovered in 2004 and 2008 to more than 55 percent but fell again in 2012 to below 55%. Even the 2004 level, however, fell 5 percentage points below the high-water mark of 68% achieved in the 1960 presidential election.

The evidence about engagement with political parties is more nuanced but a similar pattern of declining engagement can be detected. Although political parties have grander conventions, raise more money and act more professionally; party identification, attending campaign meetings, and volunteering for parties have all declined. Financial capital not social capital has become the way in which people participate in politics. Check writing and signing letters over the Internet has replaced direct participation.

Finally, Putnam also adduces evidence to demonstrate that the frequency of just about every form of community involvement declined significantly over the last quarter of the 20th century. Fewer and fewer of us took part in the everyday deliberations that constitute grassroots democracy. In Putnam’s words, “More than a third of America’s civic infrastructure simply evaporated from mid-70s to mid-90s.” 9. 43

As mentioned above, sociologist Theda Skocpol has also explored the health of civil society in the United States and found it wanting. At the national level, she finds that professionally managed advocacy groups have replaced the cross-class voluntary organizations that once defined American civil society. Similarly, non-profits through which paid employees deliver services and coordinate occasional volunteer projects have become more prevalent than membership organizations at the state and local levels.

Skocpol begins her argument by demonstrating that the organizations that dominated civil society prior to 1960 were large federated cross-class, membership groups. Examples include the Odd Fellows, the American Legion, the United Methodist Women, and the Knights of Columbus.

From the mid-50s through 70s, these national membership-based organizations lost membership. This loss of membership was prompted in part by the emergence of the civil rights movement, other rights movements and environmental movement. For example, in the area of civil rights, the NAACP was overtaken by the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

When the protest movements waned, the old associations did not regain their place of primacy, rather thousands of new organizations emerged. Public interest or citizen advocacy groups exploded. In contrast to the old organizations, in the new organizations, the professional staff speaks on behalf of constituents; not much emphasis is placed on recruiting members and networks of local chapters tend not to exist. These organizations tend to hire large staffs and use tactics such as lobbying, litigation and PR campaigns. Other entities that have grown in numbers include PACs, think tanks and foundations. They also do not have members in the same sense that the old associations did.

Although her methodology, interpretation of the timing and causes differ from Putnam, Skocpol’s analysis also leads to the conclusion that acts of citizenship, as evidenced through participation in civil society, have become less vibrant. Put another way, examining trends in civil society leads to the conclusion that the ethos of citizenship is less healthy now than it was a half century ago.

Michael Sandel’s book Democracy’s Discontent is a third major work that explores the state of citizenship in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. Sandel views the last 40 years of the 20th century as an era is which American citizens became discontent and lost trust in the capacity of government to do the right thing. He attributes this discontent to the dominance of a public philosophy known as procedural liberalism. According to Sandel, this public philosophy fails to answer satisfactorily some of the most fundamental needs of citizens—thus leading to discontent.

By public philosophy, Sandel means the political theory that informs public policy. In Sandel’s view, we can find a public philosophy embedded in things like Supreme Court decisions and public laws. Studying court decisions and the language of bills reveal certain assumptions about citizenship that are made. These assumptions can then be connected to a political philosophy. P. 4

Sandel sees our current public philosophy as a variant of liberal political theory. He identifies its central idea as the notion that government should be neutral toward the moral and religious choices of its citizens. He also asserts that procedural liberalism gives priority to fair procedures over particular outcomes or ends. It’s the opposite of the old adage that the ends justify the means. Rather the procedures justify the outcome. He concludes that the public life that it promotes might be called the procedural republic.  P. 4

Sandel argues that this public philosophy derives from a school of political thought that includes Locke, Kant, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. This school holds that core of freedom lies in our capacity to choose our ends. Importantly, although current democrats and republicans disagree about how government should act, both fit within this tradition in that they assume that freedom consists in the capacity of persons to make choices.

According to Sandel, this liberal theory of freedom lacks the civic resources to sustain self-government. It cannot secure the liberty that it promises because its emphasis on individual rights is so strong, that it cannot generate a sense of community. P. 6

Sandel also argues while this view is dominant today, procedural liberalism has not always been our public philosophy. We can also see in American public discourse an influence of a republican theory that asserts that freedom depends upon sharing in self-government. This republican tradition differs from procedural liberalism because it insists that citizenship also involves “deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the direction of the political community.” This republican tradition asserts that deliberating well means more than the capacity to choose one’s ends and to respect the right of others to do the same. It means acquiring knowledge of public affairs and possessing a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, and a sharing of a moral bond. Republican theory expects citizens to acquire “civic virtue.” A republican conception of freedom requires a formative politics, one that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character that self-government requires.

Sandel then joins Putnam and Skocpol in arguing that we have reason to be concerned about the state of citizenship in America. In his estimation, our public philosophy places too much, or a near exclusive, emphasis upon the priority of rights over notions of civic duty. As a result, we see a fragmented republic characterized by irreconcilable differences. Different groups with conflicting rights claims come into dispute with one another without any evident way to seek common ground. We suffer because the ideals of civic virtue and a common good have little support and cannot mediate the conflicting rights claims.

The arguments of Sandel, Putnam and Skocpol have not gone unchallenged.

Some authors have suggested that Putnam has misread the data on political participation, and that the decline in participation can mostly be explained by recognizing that there has been a growth in the percentage of ineligible or non-registered voters. Even more interesting, however, are critics who contend that Putnam and others have failed to capture “emerging participation styles and methods that are rapidly replacing the old ones” (Hooghe 2004, 159). The argument suggests that the “engaged citizen is more likely to participate in boycotts, buying products for political or ethical reasons, demonstrations and other forms of contentious action, including Internet activism, which is unrelated to citizen duty but strongly related to norms of engaged citizenship.” Another author has suggested that a “monitoring citizenry” has replaced the previous strong civil society and that this monitoring function does equally well in ensuring that we have a healthy democracy. From this work emerges the idea of an engaged citizen who monitors or scans the political landscape and becomes involved or engaged when they care about a political issue or connect with an ethical cause.

Sandel’s work has also been subjected to considerable criticism. For example, political scientist Richard Rorty suggests that Sandel is wrong about both the idea that we have a public philosophy that privileges rights over obligations and his view that our aspirations to self-government have been unfulfilled. According to Rorty, Sandel is simply mistaken in his claim that the average American’s self image has become liberal in the sense of viewing herself primarily as a rights claimant. Rorty points to the success of the Civil Rights Movement as the finest expression of liberal politics in our time—the expansion of political rights to a segment of the population that had previously been prevented from exercising those rights. Rorty concedes that Americans are less trusting, tolerant and self-confident than they were in the late 1960s. He suggests, however, that this has nothing to do with the premises of our public philosophy but can be explained by an economic trend—the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the sense of most Americans that they are no longer economically secure. Rorty goes on to say that the sense of disenchantment can be explained by the rise of a self-enclosed oligarchy, increasing economic insecurity of the bottom half of the population, and increasing shamelessness of politicians taking bribes.

Implicitly, Rorty seems to be suggesting that a good citizen should challenge growing economic inequality and the rise of oligarchic power. Reading Rorty, one would conclude then that a good citizen is one who defends the principles of equality.

My own view is that Putnam, Skocpol and Sandel are largely right. It seems to me that that there is considerable evidence that the ideal of citizenship as an obligation animated by a concern for a common good has less salience today than in earlier eras. I am also persuaded that this explains some of the mistrust of and alienation from the political process that we see and hear every day.

How to Educate for Citizenship

In this final section of my talk, I will be utilizing a section of my inauguration address. I begin with the premise that part of the historical heritage of liberal arts colleges and their predecessor institutions is a commitment to educating students for participation in democracy. In fact, it is clear that during the first half of the 19th century, the number of colleges and academies in the United States proliferated rapidly and that the founders of these institutions shared a sense of mission articulated in the 1828 Yale Report, which declared that, “Our republican form of government renders it highly important, that great numbers should enjoy the advantage of a thorough education.”

This view that democracy requires an educated populace inspired the founding of Williamsport Academy and influenced the decision by the Methodist church to purchase and reincarnate the school as Dickinson Seminary.  The ideal was affirmed again in 1949 when the newly named Lycoming College sought accreditation as a four-year institution dedicated to “educating… better informed, socially competent and contributive citizens in a democracy.” 341

The need for an educated citizenry is arguably even more urgent today, and so I think it’s worth asking what the type of education that students need for 21st century citizenship. The answer to that question of course, requires that we consider the type of citizen behavior that we expect or want to encourage. One who joins political parties and votes? One who is active in civil society?  One who possesses civic virtue? One who embraces deliberation? One who engages using modern technologies and forms? One who speaks out on issues of inequality? One who asserts rights?

I tend to agree with the small r “republican” tradition. A good citizen is someone who participates in civil society, votes, evidences a concern for the common good, embraces deliberation and possesses civic virtue.

The residential nature of liberal arts colleges can be seen as one feature that contributes to our ability to educate for citizenship. While they are in residence, we are helping to build the habit of creating social capital and an experience with the norm of generalized reciprocity. Samuel Eliot Morison, the great historian of American higher education, has identified the aim of the residential college as “(the development) of the whole person—body and soul as well as intellect.” (Del 40) And he describes the process as “It is only though studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same college community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors that the priceless gift of character (is) imparted.”  (Del p. 41)

Morrison’s description of the residential liberal arts colleges can be understood as a description of the ways in which social capital is built. All of these activities help to forge networks of generalized reciprocity.

The multitude of activities that we offer to students then have not only the purpose of providing fun and offering you ways of pursuing individual passions for things like athletics, music, art, physical fitness, volunteering in the community, socializing and many others. They are also ways in which students develop the skill and inclination to build social capital. They also provide students with an opportunity to experience a community connected by generalized reciprocity as they complete the passage from late adolescence to the early years of adulthood.

For me, the American philosopher John Dewey provides another vantage point for thinking about the type of education a citizen needs. In his seminal work, Education and Democracy, he suggests that citizens need an education that both builds emotional connections to others and fosters habits of mind that incline us to be interested in problems beyond our narrow individual interests. Becoming connected to one another allows us to appreciate our common humanity and accept the premise of equality that lies at the heart of democracy. Acquiring disciplined habits of mind develops our inclination to understand the viewpoint of others and our capacity to answer complex and ambiguous questions. Together, the mind and the emotions nurture a predisposition to compromise and find common ground so that our society may, in Dewey’s words, “secure social changes without introducing disorder.”

In Cultivating Humanity, contemporary scholar Martha Nusbaum makes an argument that can be understood as building upon Dewey’s work. She contends that our thinking about citizenship must now incorporate a global perspective.

More specifically, Nusbaum proposes that preparation for global citizenship requires cultivation of a narrative imagination. In her words, our students need to acquire “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of the person’s story and to understand the emotions, wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”  10-11

How does this translate into concrete action? First, we should recruit a student body that reflects the full spectrum of American society and includes students from around the world. Second, we should create opportunities for students to study abroad. Third, we should extend the classroom into the city of Williamsport and beyond by creating more ways for students to engage in community-based learning. Fourth, we should require an extensive exposure to the humanities.

Interacting with an international and diverse student body can help students build connections with others—others who represent the variety of cultures that compose our nation and our world. Studying abroad can enhance students’ ability to understand the wishes and desires of others—others whose cultural constructs differ from their own. Working in the community can deepen students’ understanding of others—others whose lives may be quite different from their own. Exposure to the humanities can help students develop a narrative imagination—so that they might become intelligent readers of the lives of others.

Let me conclude then by returning to the three questions with which I began. What is a good citizen? What is the state of citizenship in the United States?  What type of education does a citizen need?

While I don’t dismiss the value of asserting individual rights and interests, I think that the evidence suggests that citizens should also engage in civil society, think about the common good, and learn how to deliberate and compromise with others. Secondly, I am also persuaded by the arguments of Putnam, Skocpol, Sandel and others that our democracy is not functioning as well as it did 40 years ago. Thirdly, I am convinced that this dysfunction condition has something to do with declining social capital and a public philosophy that focuses to much on the promotion of individual interests. Finally, as the President of a liberal arts college, I think we have an important role to play in combatting this malaise. We have been and remain one of the primary places where the habits and states of mind needed for good citizenship can be formed.

The Future

Things to Think About

Many of you have been active in the civil society of the college during your time at the college. I encourage you to continue that involvement in your lives after college.

Build social capital in the communities in which you choose to reside.

Distinguish between membership associations and those that exhibit some of the characteristics of traditional civil associations.

Schudson offers the idea of the monitorial citizen—scans the environment and can be mobilized around important issues.