Louis Brandeis's vision of what it takes to create an engaged citizenry went far beyond voting rights, touching on leisure, regulation, and the welfare state.
During the Independence Day celebrations of 1915, Louis Brandeis was invited to give the prestigious Fourth of July Oration at Boston's Faneuil Hall. Brandeis was already a towering figure in the progressive movement, driving minimum wage reforms as a practicing lawyer, pioneering the use of social science research in legal advocacy, and serving as the chief intellectual architect of the 1912 "New Freedom" campaign by Woodrow Wilson (who would later appoint Brandeis to the Supreme Court). In this famous speech, which Brandeis called "True Americanism" (full text here), he provided a compelling vision of democracy, freedom, and pluralism, outlining themes that continue to resonate with core progressive values. The speech revolved around two key elements. He portrayed citizenship as more than just voting or civility. Rather, he said, it is fundamentally about sharing in the project of governance -- a view of citizenship that requires policies and institutions to thrive. He also emphasized the economic dimensions of citizenship: both as a right of all individuals to a level of economic wellbeing, and as an obligation for each of us to make public policies that provide those economic necessities.
Brandeis opened his speech by noting the diversity of American citizenship: America, unlike other countries, welcomed the inclusion of immigrants and thrived on diversity. This uniquely "inclusive brotherhood" recognized equality regardless of race, gender, or country of origin, and saw such equality "as an essential of full human liberty and true brotherhood, and...[as] a complement of democracy." America's greatness, for Brandeis, stemmed in part from its commitment to the belief that "in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress." This was the central foundation of democracy: the belief that "all men are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the "conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization." This democratic faith sought progress in diversity and the drive of ordinary people rather than relying on an aristocratic faith in the "principle of the superman."
But Americanism for Brandeis also meant accepting a substantive view of human freedom. This ideal of freedom served two purposes: it offered a set of values that knit together an otherwise diverse populace, and it implied a particular vision of the good society that was built to expand and foster the capacities of citizens themselves, thereby ensuring the very progress that Brandeis saw possible in a diverse democratic society. American ideals, then, meant "the development of the individual for his own and the common good" through the promotion of "democracy and social justice." Freedom thus meant more than just the negative freedom from interference by the state. It also meant freedom "in things industrial as well as political" and the fostering of opportunities for meaningful participation in the political, social, and economic life of the country. On this view of freedom, self-fulfillment could come "only through the full development and utilization of one's faculties."
This view of freedom and fulfillment thus implied a particular configuration of social, political, and economic arrangements designed to foster each individual to make full use of his or her abilities. In particular, Brandeis outlined several elements required to realize this vision.
First, he defended the importance of an inclusive franchise, giving individuals the opportunity to partake in the central political issues facing the country. But the franchise was only one of the necessary elements.
The second element was a robust welfare state. "In order that men may live and not merely exist," argued Brandies, they must have education, regular employment yielding "reasonable income," and health care: "the essentials of American citizenship are not satisfied by supplying merely the material needs or wants of every worker." Further, citizens needed insulation from "sickness, accident, invalidity, superannuation, unemployment," or "financial losses" -- thus "the standard worthy to be called American implies some system of social insurance."
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Third, citizenship required leisure. In stark contrast to the anxieties around contemporary defenses of the welfare state, Brandeis argued that leisure was essential to human fulfillment and was a worthy goal for the welfare state. "But leisure," he warned, "does not imply idleness. It means the ability to work...at some thing besides breadwinning. Leisure, so defined, is an essential of successful democracy."
Fourth, citizenship required the extensive regulation of concentrated private power. Citizens in a successful democracy must be free, and they could not be free so long as they were "dependent industrially upon the arbitrary will of another." Thus, "some curb must be placed on overweening industrial power," in particular on the threats posed by the vast economic and financial power of trusts. These constraints on private power required both external government regulation and internal empowerment of workers themselves as co-participants in the governance of these private firms: "control and cooperation are both essential to industrial liberty."
In this brief account of American citizenship, Brandeis outlined a vision that offers significant lessons for progressives today. This is not to say that Brandeis or his contemporaries had all the answers. Indeed, Progressive Era reformers of the early twentieth century were notorious for their Victorian sensibilities, often favoring the interests of white, middle-class, male Americans over others. Nevertheless, the thinking and rhetoric of key Progressive Era intellectuals like Brandeis paints a picture of progressive politics and of American citizenshp more broadly than ours. In many ways it is more compelling and more substantive than much of contemporary political rhetoric.
Inclusion is central to citizenship, but it requires more than formal inclusion in the franchise. Inclusion was not just a value in the abstract for Brandeis; it was also a central driver of progress. It rested on a commitment to progress through the empowerment of all individuals, rather than through an "aristocratic" faith in superhuman individuals. By contrast, too much of contemporary discourse speaks of inclusion and opportunity, but valorizes the particular unique genius and capabilities of a few select individuals -- from Steve Jobs to Alan Greenspan or even to Barack Obama. Rather than seeking such heroic ideals in business, expertise, or political leadership, progressives should focus on unleashing of every individual's talents and capacities.
This unleashing of individual capacities -- and in turn the larger social progress that arises from it -- requires a sustained and coherent set of reforms across all policy areas designed to protect individuals and unleash their capacities to innovate, to create, and ultimately to lead fulfilling lives. These reforms would expand the ability of individuals to participate in both political and economic decision-making. They would also expand the scope for individual leisure, giving people the space to engage in fulfilling activities in both the public and private arenas. They would constrain the ability of private actors to interfere with these individual capacities. This approach makes citizenship more than a mere exhortation to civility or virtue; it is instead something that has to be fostered and sustained through extensive political, social, and economic reform.
Brandeis's vision of citizenship is ultimately shaped by a sense of active humility, rather than passive exceptionalism. While the values he articulated are powerful and important, they are aspirational, demanding extensive action to make them a reality. In the final moments of his speech, he alluded to the great conflict in World War I Europe, calling for a universal commitment to this vision of democracy and economic wellbeing as a route to world peace. But he also warned his audience that America did not possess a monopoly on rightness, but rather must work to promote these ideals through its own example.
Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.