What Is American Citizenship?

Dennis Hale and Marc Landy

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs on July 14, 2021.

These days, the idea of citizenship immediat­­ely calls to mind the idea of rights: we have rights because we are citizens of a rights-protecting nation. Behind this idea is the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain “unalienable” rights.

Yet the Constitution begins differently, by announcing a decision: we the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, do ordain and establish this parti­cular constitution. One document announces a “proposition,” as Lincoln called it – that all have equal rights. The other document establishes a fact: “We the people” will be governed in this particular way, and in no other. All citizens, therefore, share in this responsibility, which makes of citizenship not simply a guarantee of rights, but an office, with a set of duties to perform. 

Citizenship as an office, or as a duty, is a discordant note in an age of “rights talk.” Yet we can exercise our rights only because we live under a government that rests on the consent of the governed. We give our consent in many different ways. We pay taxes, of course, and we obey the laws. But the same might be said of the citizens of Canada, or France, or many other free nations. What makes American citizenship different?

The first difference is federalism. We are citizens of the United States, but we are also citizens of the state in which we live. Every American citizen obeys three sets of laws and elects three sets of “governors.” Federal law, state law, and municipal law all are obligatory, each in its own sphere, and it will often be the case that state and municipal law will have more immediate importance to the citizen than federal law. Depending on where you live, your state and/or town can take away your house (if it’s falling down); your child (if you are an abusive parent); your car (if you have repeated drunk-driving convictions); and even your dog (if it has become violent and uncontrollable). The federal government can’t do any of these things.

Citizenship is often most robust at the local level, another feature that makes American citizenship unique. Throughout the country, people serve on juries, and depending on where they live, they may also serve as town meeting members, or serve on local planning boards, finance committees, school and library committees, and many others. In these venues, citizens have a chance to learn, up close, what governing means. They learn, first of all, how hard it is. When it comes to finding a new location for the town dump, for example, there are no easy choices. Nor is it easy to determine teacher salaries, how many additional firefighters to hire, or whether the town needs a new library more than it needs a new school building. This kind of learning exposes the citizen to the kinds of choices that must be made by their elected representatives and executives. What members of the House and Senate must do – indeed, what the president must do – differs in magnitude but not in kind from the demands placed on local citizens.

We point this out in order to reinforce an important truth: American citizens have much work to do, but local citizenship strengthens our “civic muscles,” which then get put to work in the choice of representatives and executives.

Citizens of most other democratic countries have a simpler task. Their governments are primarily national rather than federal, and even where local governments have important duties, they are carefully limited and supervised by the national government. In France, to use one example, educational policy for the entire country is made by the national government – as is also the case in Japan. In England, the “common schools” (what Americans would call public schools) are likewise run from the Ministry of Education in London. In the last few decades, there has been some movement in the direction of decentralization – moving democratic decision-making closer to home. Brexit is the most important example of that movement, but there are others: Scots and Catalans agitate for more self-government or even national independence. But these are exceptions to the general rule in modern states, which equate democracy with rule by a central government chosen by a national majority.

America’s complex set of citizenship responsibilities exists precisely because the Constitutional Convention rejected rule by the center in favor of the division of powers. Federalism meant that American citizens would have not only political duties to perform; they would also continue to have conflicting loyalties. Those conflicting loyalties came close to destroying the Union, but the Civil War was only the most extreme example of something that is a perpetual feature of the constitutional design. We are both a nation(America) and a union (the United States of America). In addition, we live in particular places: cities or towns that have their own elected governments. Part of the complexity of being an American citizen is the task of sorting out the different obligations that flow from these different loyalties. American citizenship requires the art of discernment.

The second difference is that the Constitution creates a political order that is not, in the strictest sense, democratic. The president is not elected by a national majority but by majorities in the states – and as we have now experienced twice since 2000, this means that the president might be elected by a minority of the votes cast nationwide. In the Senate, Alaska and California are represented equally despite the latter’s vastly larger population. The Supreme Court, whose members have lifetime appointments, can veto laws passed by majorities in both houses of Congress on grounds that they violate the Constitution. On certain questions – appointments, treaties, constitutional amendments, and overrides of presidential vetoes – the Constitution requires super-majorities in the legislature. And, finally, the legislature itself has adopted rules that constrain majority rule: most notably, the super-majority required to end debate (the Senate filibuster). And lest we forget in this age of referenda, it is not possible to have a national referendum in the United States, on any question, no matter how important.

It has often been pointed out that the United States is a republic rather than a democracy. What this old distinction means is that, beyond the service opportunities presented by local governments, the basic task of citizens is to choose who will govern them. This choice requires something more than voting for candidates who promise to satisfy our immediate demands; it means selecting candidates who will govern us within the limits established by the Constitution. The Constitution creates a limited government; the demands that citizens make must likewise be limited. In other words, citizens need to think constitutionally. For example, they need to avoid the habit of believing that the president can do everything, or that states must all adopt the same policies, or that the federal government can solve every imaginable problem.

This view runs counter to what has become a norm in modern discussions of citizenship: the notion that the citizen’s chief task is to become a more effective demander. The “citizen as demander” is the hero in much of the modern literature on citizenship, in which political participation is simply a synonym for “making demands.” It follows from this perspective that becoming a more effective citizen simply requires honing the arts of demanding (protests, petitions, and so on). The Constitution, of course, protects the expression of grievances: the rights to assemble, to speak, and to petition are essential to the American understanding of liberty. Citizenship does involve acting. Yet thought should precede action; one obligation of citizenship, therefore, is to think clearly, and carefully, about the consequences of what one is demanding. Put simply, the citizen needs to be prudent.

The third difference involves a contested idea: nationalism, which is blamed for the catastrophic wars of the 20th century. How can nationalism be a good thing? Ever since those wars, we have seen a steady movement away from nationalism and toward a cosmopolitan internationalism. Sometimes this movement takes institutional forms – the most obvious of which is the gradual emergence of the European Union – and sometimes more subtle ones, as in the reluctance to use the word “foreigner” or “alien” to describe someone from another country.

The hard truth, however, is that democracy is not possible outside the context of the nation. Small city-states get gobbled up by larger states, and the dream of a European demos looks increasingly unlikely to be realized. Poles do not want to be governed by non-Poles. The French do not want to be governed by those who do not share their unique national experience. Loyalty snaps when it is stretched too far, and this is why the European Union has come a cropper. For people to trust one another, it is necessary for them to share something more particular than a “common humanity.” This is why the nation is the necessary home of democracy. Post-national democracy is a contradiction in terms.

Because America is a nation, as well as a constitutional order, it must inevitably have national interests. That is, there must be things that are good for it and things that are bad for it. To avoid the latter, and promote the former, is the simplest meaning of what it means to act patriotically. This is the prudential quality of citizenship: what’s good for the country is ultimately good for me. But American patriotism is not just prudential; it is also creedal. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” That creed is found, he pointed out, in the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that all men are created equal and entitled to natural rights. This makes America different from other nations, most of which are based on blood and a common history rather than on a creed. What makes a person a Spaniard, or a Pole, or a German is not, for the most part, a set of ideas, but a language, a history, and a certain culture. When a Pole says, “I love Poland,” he means something other than what an American means when he says, “I love America.” The American’s expression mixes love of place with love of principle: “liberty and justice for all,” as the Pledge of Allegiance has it. This mixture of love of place and loyalty to an idea is what constitutes American patriotism.

The reader might well wonder what all this has to do with the moment we are living in, which is fraught with a number of anti-constitutional enthusiasms: pack the Supreme Court, abolish the Electoral College, weaken federalism, abolish the filibuster, nationalize election rules. Not for the first time, many Americans are impatient with the constraints that the Constitution imposes on majority rule. This is an old complaint about the Constitution, and it erupts periodically – as it did during the Progressive Era, during the Great Depression, and again in the 1960s. Such times call for an unusual degree of discernment. The nation faces many serious problems, and many voices urge immediate and radical solutions. The job of the citizen is to temper such impulses, in favor of the sober deliberation that the constitutional order is designed to encourage. That deliberation requires more than simple majority rule or rule by plebiscites. The authors of the Constitution understood that in order to achieve anything lasting, it would be necessary to construct something more than a bare majority. But this rule is only a hurdle; it is not a barrier. Over time, with patience, super-majorities are durable, and their accomplishments are long-lasting. Bare majorities, by contrast, are easily overturned, and their accomplishments may last only until the next election. Patience, therefore, like discernment, is an essential aspect of the office of the American citizen. 

A final observation: the Constitution imposes on the citizenry a certain mode of arguing. Whereas in most countries, political argument turns on what citizens demand, in the United States citizens’ demands must be filtered through the sieve of the Constitution. It is not enough to want something; it is necessary to show why that something is also constitutionally proper. Americans end up sounding – or used to sound – more like lawyers than is typical in most free countries. While this is not an unmixed blessing, it has the advantage of forcing on even the most demanding of citizens some recognition that there are limits to what an American government may do, and therefore limits on what an American citizen may demand. The loss of that recognition is perhaps the most serious danger that the nation now faces. 

Dennis Hale and Marc Landy are professors of political science at Boston College. Hale is the author of  The Jury in America: Triumph and Decline (University Press of Kansas). Landy is the co-author (with Sidney Milkis) of  Presidential Greatness. A new edition of his textbook, American Government: Enduring Principles, Critical Choices, has been published by Cambridge University Press.

Image: Kelly Sikkema, Public Domain

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