citizenship in the modern American republic: change or decline?

This is one last session outline from the Summer Institute of Civic Studies. The course covered roughly 18 separate topics, and I blogged about half of them. The topic of this post is changing conceptions of citizenship in the US.

In the mid-1800s, 80 percent of eligible men might vote. Popular movements were loud, boisterous, and effective. Today, we have many more means of engaging with government, but we don’t use the old ways as much. Even a very good year sees turnout only around 60%.

Two perspectives on this change in our assigned readings

  • Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen, introduction and chapter 5
  • Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized the Public, pp. 1-46

Michael Schudson argues that the definition and content of citizenship has changed many times in American history. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions about whether the changes are good or bad, because they are embedded in different cultural moments. Crenson and Ginsberg paint a highly critical picture of the present.


Definitions of the good citizen have changed. That doesn’t mean that it’s all relative and what’s good is just in the eye of the beholder. The changes might be good or bad. We can make judgments. But there is variability and a complex interplay between theories of good citizenship and theories of good social institutions. When institutions change, citizenship changes, and vice-versa. One kind of citizen is not appropriate for all political/institutional contexts.

[Question for discussion: what are some conceptions of “the good citizen” that seem to have been important at different times and in different cultures?]

On normative judgment versus historical relativism: Shudson remarks, “Did they create a better system? They at least created a different one, which instructs us in what citizenship is and should be in novel ways.” (p. 6)

The progressive era was especially important. It ushered in basically the modern concept of citizenship and brought to the surface dilemmas that progressive-era writers wrote about well and that we haven’t resolved yet. There is a striking continuity between then and now.

Victorian citizenship Progressive Era citizenship
Loyalty to ascribed group (region, class, race, religion) Choice about policies
Party as coalition of ascribed groups (race, region, etc) Party as vehicle for aggregating policy preferences—an imperfect vehicle
Duty Information, the informed voter (autonomous, rational)
Good leaders are moral exemplars Good leaders are experts
Press as a vehicle for partisan mobilization Press as a source of objective, unbiased information
Voting as a public expression of solidarity Voting as a secret expression of preferences. (Why secret?)
Universities: deliberately instruct on morals. College president teaches mandatory moral course. Prepare students for duty Lots of choice. Disciplinary autonomy. Separation of values from “science.” Neutrality about values. Training of experts
Face-to-face discussions Scientific opinion polls

Crenson and Ginsberg

Elites used to need people to pay taxes, lend money to the state, and serve in militaries.

You don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why elites would share power with ordinary people from 1600-1900. In regimes where the public actively supported the state, citizens provided enormous power. My example: the Dutch Republic could bankrupt the greatest empire in the world (Spain) despite the Spanish king’s silver mines, because Dutch citizens willingly lent the government money in return for the vote. Later, the French revolutionary regime could field an army of 1.3 million, versus the largest monarchical army of the 1700s (Prussia’s) at 80,000 men. Wars typically saw the expansion of the franchise, WWI being the best example.

These systems simply crushed monarchies and produced global empires. By the 1900s, the remaining viable options were tyrannies, which mobilized through fear, and democracies, which got active support. Both worked for a time, but democracies prevailed.

Today, however, democracies no longer need many soldiers (war is too high-tech), individual lenders (bonds are floated on global markets), or willing taxpayers (taxes are drawn automatically). If elites do not need ordinary citizens, they will cease to mobilize them. Instead, they will offer palliatives such as better customer service from government agencies.

P. 44: “Citizens once entered the nation’s service accompanied by their friends and neighbors, tied to one another and to particular parts of the country. They were not solitary conscripts who stood alone in the face of military authority. They were in a position to make demands and command respect.”

The turn to apolitical community service is a “government-sponsored turn in our conception of citizenship” (p. 8). It’s part of a deliberate effort to demobilize, disaggregate, and depoliticize citizens.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.