Are There Any Citizens Left?

Inclusion, Diversity and Inequity in the Entitlement State

Business and Public Policy Round Table
March 28th, 2017
University Club of St. Paul


Our conversation began with the simple prompt of: what is citizenship?

Citizenship is not simply voting or just paying attention. Citizenship is action-based and is expressed in an ongoing collaboration and partnership with the government. It was noted (and attributed to Tocqueville) that, “…democracies do not depend on a great leader but on each other.” Citizenship is a form of social capital.

Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau (1850)

It was noted that the United States is in a time of change and challenge. How much individualism is prudential and how much should the collective count? Change brings diversity and diversity brings challenges. We have seen advances but also a regression in the quality of our citizenship norms.

Citizenship, particularly in the Minnesota experience, is a co-creative necessity. There was a great deal of concern expressed regarding the level of civics education in our country. Much discussion was made of the sound and valid point that in our country, there is a strong prevalence of ‘rights’ but those rights only exist within the scope of the accompanying responsibility. It was noted that our country and culture have worked to teach people about their rights but the same effort has not been put into ensuring a sense of accountability and responsibility to one another. It is as if each person flies the flag of his or her own separate country.

American educator and Civil Rights Activist Septima Clark

It is citizenship that keeps government in its place. The Civil Rights Movement was anchored in many African American communities by citizenship education through the efforts of Septima Clark, working side by side with Martin Luther King.

Citizenship requires a connectedness and a responsibility to one another that many of our attendees believe we have lost and that our schools do not reinforce. Fallout from this dearth of civic education is a growing inability in our society to civilly disagree with one another. In the past, individuals could disagree and yet, still find a way to work together. Now, it appears — exacerbated by social media and the 24hr news cycle — that our current society has created the dichotomy of “the righteous and the damned.”

Truly, if we as a nation have fallen into a kind of citizenship anomie, the first step in regaining our footing is realizing that we, citizen-to-citizen, have the ability to repair any faults we see.

We should “back away from the cliff’s edge” and not use race and culture as divides. We need to separate the “goodness” of ideas from the person who offers them, as ideas may not be made wrong by shortfalls in a person’s character or in his or her differences from us.

It was suggested that at the level of individuals, we all should share a meal from time to time with the “other.”

However, systems — finance — are too complex. If institutions are too big to fail, then they are too big to be responsive to citizens. People become passive and dependent, looking for “strong men” to solve their problems.

Dramatic rise of polarization

Something that would increase the sense of responsibility and accountability, citizen-to-citizen, is if there were leaders capable of disagreement while working together. Whether the leadership issue is faced from the right or the left, it was widely noted that our nation has a deficit of leaders, specifically individuals who would put country before party. This leads to increased polarization of our political parties, our media sources and our fellow citizens.

Robert Putnam documented that attending club meetings, such as those held by Rotary and Kiwanis groups, has declined by 58 percent in the period 1975–2000.

There was some discussion about the concept that we, as a society, have left civic engagement behind and instead focus on activism. In past decades, business owners and interested individuals would join Kiwanis, Rotary or the Lions, etc., but now membership is dwindling.

People who now are interested and want to get involved decide to create their own “political fiefdoms” through political activism and various non-profits. This simply leads to the exacerbation of our nation’s divisive dialogues.

There were many passionate points made about the benefits of citizenship and the failures of our current society. However, as Tocqueville was referenced earlier, it seems only fitting to revisit him: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Truly, if we as a nation have fallen into a kind of citizenship anomie, the first step in regaining our footing is realizing that we, citizen-to-citizen, have the ability to repair any faults we see.

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