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Discussion: The Limits of Civil Citizenship

Recent survey research reveals a generational decline in at least conventional political engagement (Dalton, 2008; Putnam, 2000;; Wattenberg, 2008; Zukin et al., 2006), but tells us less about how young Americans think about citizenship in their own words. Talking in-depth with young Americans free of the standardizing constraints of surveys can help uncover important nuances in how they think about citizenship, nuances with consequences for American democracy if thinking shapes action. My interviews with young Americans suggest that the habit many political scholars and practitioners have of using “civic engagement” as a catch-all phrase obscures important differences and possible changes in how citizens think about citizenship. Those young Americans I spoke with conceived of the good citizen less as political or even civic than civil. Scholars who study citizen engagement generally recognize the difference between civic and political action, but ignore civility as a distinct and possibly growing form of citizenship.

Civility has received some attention in history and social theory for its role in civilizational development, social control, status distinction and democracy (Bryson, 1998; Caldwell, 1999; Hemphill, 1999; Smith, 1999; Smith, 2002; Elias, 2000; White, 2006; Davetian, 2009). However, thus far scholars who study young Americans’ “civic engagement” give mostly passing attention to their focus on considerate conduct and obeying the law in everyday life, and still less attention to the implications of this form of citizenship for politic engagement (Torney-Purta, 2002; Chiodo & Martin, 2005; Zukin et al., 2006). Some current political scholars recognize a disconnect and even tension between civic and political citizenship among young Americans (Macedo et al., 2005; Zukin et al., 2006; Dalton, 2008; Wattenberg, 2008), but not between civil and political citizenship. My interviews though suggest that the civil terms in which some young Americans interpret good citizenship may help explain their weakened political engagement, and this in at least three ways: polite individualism, proximate reach, and facile, fleeting engagement.

Polite individualism: The civil citizenship my interviewees described is “individualistic” in two distinct senses of the term. First, civil citizens are not just often acting alone when they do civil things, civil citizens think in terms of individual rather than collective action. Thus, to the extent that politics demands collective action – and democratic politics organized on the principle of “one person, one vote” requires collective action for electoral success – it jars with the civil citizen’s individualistic sensibility. Further, politics’ collective passion does not sit well with the civil citizen’s politeness. Lest one imagine such civil citizenship is natural, it is worth remembering that older Americans who experienced the Great Depression and World War II, and even more 18th and 19th century Americans who participated in colonial then mass democratic politics often defined and enacted citizenship in passionately collective rather than politely individual terms (McGerr, 1986; Schudson, 1998; Putnam, 2000; Skocpol, 2003). Second, civil citizenship is individualistic in a Tocquevillian sense of the term: it gives citizens little reason to step out of the comforts of their private lives with family and friends into the public life of politics with strangers (Tocqueville, 1969, pp. 506-8, 604-5). When civil citizenship demands little more than raising civil kids, obeying the law and being considerate why step into the rough and tumble world of politics? Some of my interviewees did indeed mention voting, paying attention and discussing politics, but such acts were usually treated as virtues more than obligations, as private rather than public acts (i.e., done alone or within one’s private circles of friends and family, rather than with wider public circles of fellow citizens), and were raised second to civility in order of mention and the time and words my respondents devoted to them.

Proximate reach: While civility applies widely – to friends and family, neighbors and strangers alike, regardless of color, income, title, lifestyle, etc. – it is usually limited to those with whom one comes into face-to-face contact, whether intimates, acquaintances or strangers. Such proximate reach becomes problematic though in any modern, wealthy societies like the United States, wherein our actions as consumers, workers, taxpayers and voters often have far-reaching consequences on hundreds, thousands, millions, even billions of strangers we will never meet. One can be eminently civil to the elderly woman next door, and the stranger on the street, yet together as workers, consumers, taxpayers and/or voters wittingly or unwittingly contribute to colossal public problems, from slavery and war to disease and climate change, that affect many more people than our proximate civility touches. It is good to be civil to those around us, but this does not shape our actions as consumers, workers, taxpayers and voters the way politics does. It is in such routine roles more often than as civil or even civic citizens that modern people – and especially Americans, as members of the still most powerful nation in the contemporary world, for better or worse – have their greatest impact on others.

Facile, fleeting engagement: Much like the “random acts of kindness” movement promoted through organizations, websites and books, civil citizenship cannot sustain political citizenship to the extent that its small civilities are usually facile and fleeting engagements while politics regularly demands sustained, often difficult engagement, whether to change a law, elect a candidate, win a court case, or else. And yet, it is political action, not civility, that ensures that all poor children get school lunches, that guns are not sold to troubled individuals, that nature and wildlife are protected, that women are allowed to vote and run for office. Or, from a more conservative perspective, it is political action, not civility, that ensures that citizens have the right to bear arms, that one’s taxes are not too onerous, that one’s business is not overburdened with government regulation, that government policies encourage families, or that marriage remains between a man and a woman in the eyes of the state.

Clearly, politics matters to people’s lives, and the legitimacy of any democratic state depends in no small part on the political engagement of its citizens. While some political scientists remark that much of politics is usually the province of a minority of activists and politicians (Schattschneider, 1960; Milbrath, 1965), there have been upswings, downturns and changes in American citizenship and in recent decades a trend away from at least conventional political engagement (Schudson, 1998; Putnam, 2000; Skocpol, 2003; Zukin et al., 2006; Dalton, 2008; Wattenberg, 2008). Political culture is by no means the only factor driving that trend, but it behooves those concerned about political withdrawal to dig deeper into the nature of American political culture, including how ordinary citizens think about politics and citizenship in their own words. My interviews with young American professionals on the meaning of good citizenship suggest that current scholarly discourse on “civic engagement” not only largely misses civil citizenship, but that to the extent this form entails polite individualism, proximate reach and facile, fleeting engagement it may be the weakest or least engaging form of citizenship.

My interviews raise many questions for further research. Given that my interviews were conducted only in metropolitan Boston, are there regional and urban vs. rural differences in young Americans’ conceptions of citizenship as there are in Americans’ partisan affiliations (Bishop, 2008; Abramowitz & Saunders, 2008)? Are younger Americans in fact more likely than older Americans to define citizenship in civil terms? How do civil, civic and political forms of citizenship relate in the minds and actions of Americans of different generations? Are those who identify more with civil citizenship in fact less likely to act in civic and/or political life? How much of the variation in civil, civic and political action is explained by the kind of citizenship with which one identifies? As noted earlier, my own interviewees claimed more political and civic activity than most Americans, so do other factors counteract their primary identification with civil citizenship, or does the kind of citizenship one identifies with just matter little to actual practice? Many of these questions are probably best answered through regression analysis using survey data, but there is still much qualitative research to be done whether through in-depth interviews and/or participant observation to deepen our understanding of the civil, civic and political, and to better understand the changing nature of American citizenship.

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