In the last issue we examined why America’s political elite does not offer the citizenship example we need, and how the power of the citizen idea really rests with the people themselves.
When we began as a nation, the idea was to build a country from the bottom up, not the top down. Implicit to self-governing was the notion of citizens assuming great personal responsibility. The common welfare was served by taking it.
Washington and others often referred to the responsibilities of a virtuous population and their elected civic leaders in a republican government. Jefferson imbued these ideas in his description of “the yeoman farmer.”
Over much of our history, this model has been broadly accepted. Its heritage is woven into the American dream. The model has been viewed as an expression of a series of core beliefs, as part of a moral and religious framework for the individual, a means for democracy to run, and a way to remind us all not to take the country for granted.
There is no one primer on what makes a good citizen in America. Yet over the years certain understandings have grown up. Some basic expectations still seem to be: go to school, plan to work for a lifetime, pay one’s taxes each year, vote to support democracy, serve in the military if called, and accept jury duty to be part of a nation of laws.
These tests have in common two things. They require us taking responsibility to be worthy of living in a free society. They also say we need to carry our weight with others. As specific expressions of public duty, these citizen obligations are easy to number on the right hand. Not hard to keep in mind, they are rudiments of being alive in America. So how are we doing?
As many as 45.3% of American adults (or 77.5 million individuals and married couples out of a total of 172.3 million eligible taxpayers) paid no federal income taxes in 2015 (Tax Policy Center). Just over 50% typically vote in presidential elections today (American Presidency Project). Only 44% of adults have full time work now. In 1960 the percentage was nearer 60%. During World War II the workweek averaged 46 hours. Today, full time is a mere 30 hours (and over).
If there’s a single reason to get our job force back to over 50%, it’s to underwrite our citizenry. In short – when it comes to taxes, voting, and work – we can to do better. We have not always been in this position. Great pockets of the citizenry, including our military, many service professionals, philanthropists, and so many others, are exemplary Americans. They fulfill all the responsibilities of citizenship well.
Over more time the context of American citizenship was one of creating a great nation and better world. Those millions of Americans who have fought our wars, worked three shifts on factory floors, built our small businesses, and run our civic clubs and charitable causes and community traditions, have nurtured the country and lived lives of gratitude doing so. They carry in their bosom an undying loyalty and belief in the American Dream. They are the bread of life in America.
What then, exactly, is out of joint? The first is the numbers are not high enough. For the right to be an American, 100% of Americans need to pay some federal income taxes – even as low as $10 to $50 a month. All Americans, for the right to be a citizen, should vote. Rights create obligations. We cannot be satisfied with the state of things. We must pull our oar better as a people.
The second is the social fabric itself. As Tocqueville claimed in 1835 in Democracy in America, our nation was “sturdy” because massive numbers of citizens took active part in public affairs. The connecting values of the citizen code are not where they need to be. Too many millions of Americans are not supporting the country as a democracy, or carrying their weight with others. That’s where the breakdown has happened. It’s where we need to find the fix.
American citizenship was never to be outsourced. No one ever thought of it as swiss cheese – holes here and there, some in it, some out. Our system depends on more – if our people are to remain the center of the Republic we created. There’s a character to our citizenship that must be found again. The American model does not need changing. It does needs wider participation, deeper commitment and much greater fulfillment.
To some, getting our system one day much closer a civic ideal of 100% may seem distant, unrealistic, or even prescriptively “fascistic” as some form social control. Yet as we get ready for Independence Day this July 4, who is not willing to put the American model of citizenship up against any competing system as worthy of defense?
Even more, a fresh citizenship character for the times can go beyond numbers to build anew the social fabric. The Public Square in coming columns expects to review the weakening of this fabric and how possibly to repair it. The tried and true examples of proven citizenship – school, work, voting, paying taxes, serving one’s country – may not be enough to guide a confused Republic that has become weaker in its fiscal overextension and international contraction among nations.
We need to at least ask if the understandings of citizenship, never held more than loosely in the social code, are relevant enough for us to survive as a democracy. Bequeathed through a moral and religious tradition, going forward it’s clear the case for American citizenship must become less assumed, and once again explicitly waged.
The softening of our civic arsenal no longer makes it possible for our citizenship base to be taken for granted. But our citizenship is a timeless heritage, and The Public Square believes it must remain our national foundation