The Malaise of Citizenship

For at least a half-century, and demonstrably and palpably since 1972 (and perhaps since November 22, 1963), the American public, first the fringes and then the majority, has become disillusioned with the national government and apathetic or cynical about its efficacy.  The ascendency of Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle was only the most recent demonstration of the antipathy to the government that runs deep in America beyond the reach of all the do-gooding boosters and the high-pressure media to alter or cure.

Voting, that most basic and simplest of civic tasks, has been ingrained into us since the first grade as the very essence of our system, and the regular recurrence of national political campaigns every two years is always accompanied by well-financed and well-publicized appeals for us to get out and do it, as if this one activity were more significant than any other possible public activity. And yet every year the percentage of voters in the U.S. remains small, the smallest in the industrial world, and only rarely goes much above 50 percent of eligible citizens—which in turn is only around 60 percent of the total population—and then only in presidential elections. Since 1972 turnout has never been above 57 percent in presidential elections and averages about 53 percent, and in off-year elections never above 37 percent and averages about 35.

Pathetic evidence of citizenship decay, a malaise eating into our politics.

When asked why they don’t vote, people give a variety of reasons—too busy, the vote doesn’t count, dislike candidates, no difference between parties, and above all that the government’s run by big interests, anyway.  A column on the liberal website put it in 2014, after the dismal turnout that year: “These people are not stupid. They do care. What they don’t believe is that voting alone will fix the problem.”

It added: “Let’s stop kidding ourselves that voting alone will somehow magically change a system that has been decades in the making. It must be dismantled and evolved into new configurations of civic participation and collective action.”  As if.

The unquestionable malaise that has pervaded the land was analyzed by Barbara Tuchman, a wise and learned woman whom I had always thought an imperturbable type, as far back as 1976, when it was just starting:

In the United States we have a society pervaded from top to bottom by contempt for the law. Government—including the agencies of law enforcement—business, labor, students, the military, the poor no less than the rich, outdo each other in breaking the rules and violating the ethics that society has established for its protection. The average citizen, trying to hold a footing in standards of morality and conduct he once believed in, is daily knocked over by incoming waves of venality, vulgarity, irresponsibility, ignorance, ugliness, and trash in all senses of the word. Our government collaborates abroad with the worst enemies of humanity and liberty. It wastes our substance on useless proliferation of military hardware that can never buy security no matter how high the pile. It learns no lessons, employs no wisdom and corrupts all who succumb to Potomac fever.

But in truth, the malaise goes even deeper than this. The crucial fact—the never-spoken, ever-present truth—is that Americans have given up their citizenship.

Citizenship—the act, the right, of participating in public affairs, of making the decisions that affect one’s life, of having a continual voice in civic matters, of exercising regular judgment on the daily business of the state—has been sacrificed, in return for the right, if not the fact, of voting, the right to let someone else participate and legislate, the right to reaffirm every other November the loss of participation in public life. In past times—way past times—when  it was the locality that controlled daily affairs, the American adult participated in politics, joined civic groups, stood for office, took battles to the city legislature and problems to the city hall, met and thrashed things out in town meetings and ward assemblies from coast to coast. But that has changed. Today the locality is merely an appendage of some larger government, most major matters are decided for us in Washington, and there is virtually no way that our voices can be heard at that level in any sustained and percussive sense, no matter how many special-interest groups we may join or how often we email the people in  Congress.

Citizenship has simply evaporated in American life, leaving a residue of felt powerlessness. A President can declare a war or violate the territorial rights of 111 maritime nations all by himself and take countless secret actions at home and abroad jeopardizing millions of lives—even murdering by drone an American citizen never accused or convicted of a crime–without any reference either to us or to our representatives. A Congress can decide to increase the Social Security burden by 300 percent or give a tax break to the oil companies or establish a new agency or pork-barrel a new dam, and most of us will not even hear about it until after it is done, much less have a chance to be consulted and give our opinion on it beforehand. State legislators can increase taxes or censor textbooks or raise utility rates without any participation from the people who are to be affected other than their pulling a lever in a polling booth two years before.

The simple fact is that in a system as large as ours, it is essential that the individual not have a regular voice in political affairs. To allow each of 320 million people, or even the 235 million over 18, to participate in politics in a serious way would simply be too unwieldy, too chaotic; not even the wildest of technofix schemes of telephone voting and computer tallying could solve the sheer logistical problems if every person were to behave as, for example, the Greek citizen of Periclean Athens, demand­ing to know the issues of the day, judging them, debating them, determining which were capable of being effected and when and how and by whom.

But not being able to participate has its terrible price. No wonder we feel so apathetic about voting: we do not have authentic political selves, we do not act politically, we do not know what is happening in and cannot much change the affairs of the nation, so the meager act of voting hardly carries much weight. We do not understand ourselves publicly, as public beings, nor could we be permitted to; we do not have public duties and public rights and public responsibilities of any meaning; there is nothing in our extended system that binds us as individuals to the public weal as there is in truly democratic societies.

We have sacrificed our citizenship to bigness, slowly over the decades—more rapidly in the last half-century but still slowly enough so that we have hardly been aware that it is gone—so it is not surprising that we do not have the interests, the attitudes, of citizens. Thus we do not vote. We do not pay taxes—corporations shelter  in tax havens $2.1trillion a year, individuals evade an estimated $500 billion and some $2 trillion income goes unreported (I.R.S. 2008 figures). We do not always support our government in time of war, and the most recent wars, largely opposed, did not register long on public consciousness and are now almost universally condemned. We do not obey its laws by habit but by force, and a great many of the most highly placed people both in government and business, including even our Presidents and our representatives and the executives of the largest firms, are regularly and increasingly seen to be disobeying these laws.

I do not think that any nation has long survived under such conditions, almost certainly none nurtured on the political traditions of ancient Israel, of democratic Greece, of republican Rome, of the egalitarian Enlightenment.

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