A new series to look at how to meaningfully engage Americans in a political system run amok.
In last week's State of the Union address, President Obama repeatedly appealed to the civic virtue of both voters and representatives, calling for all Americans to work together to overcome the central challenges of a struggling economy and declining social mobility. This call to civic engagement and collaboration has been central to Obama's most compelling moments as a public figure, going back to his remarkable campaign. The most memorable moments of 2008 stemmed from Obama's evocation of the ideal of American citizenship -- the ability of citizens to work together, to get involved, and, through politics, to remake their world.
While the resonance of that appeal has varied over the course of Obama's presidency, the theme is one that lies behind the other defining episodes of political discourse over the last few years. Although neither was as much of a mass movement as it purported to be, both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement tapped into a similar set of anxieties and aspirations. They channeled anxieties that the scale of contemporary social challenges exceed our capacity to manage them, whether they be from the economy, the environment, corporate power, or government regulation; and aspirations to expand the collective political power of "we the people." While both movements diagnosed the problems and defined "the people" in vastly different ways, the root of their appeal was in some sense a result of this shared notion that ordinary citizens are not as empowered, not as capable as they ought to be in a well-functioning democracy and a good society.
Both the power and transience of each of these experiences -- Obama's campaign, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement -- point to a deeper structural problem in American politics that lies beneath specific policy debates or electoral rhetoric. This problem is fundamentally one of the nature of modern American citizenship: that despite formal inclusion in the franchise and the political process, we as citizens continue to lack the capacities to meaningfully engage in the practice of politics. On top of that, the mechanisms we do have are inadequate for the scale of the challenges the country faces and the defects in the political process itself.
In the coming months, I will explore this problem through a series of posts about democratic citizenship, what it means, and what it requires. But appeals to citizenship cannot simply be appeals to "bipartisanship," or the obligation to vote, or the individual virtue of elected officials. These are often empty appeals, lacking in definitive substantive content, and thus unable to really shape our thinking or response in an effective way. Instead, a coherent vision of citizenship necessarily requires a set of substantive commitments about what freedom means, about how an economy should be structured, about what democracy requires in practice. Thus this series focuses in particular on progressive citizenship. In other words, these posts will try to explore what is a distinctly progressive view of citizenship. What are the core ideals that animate progressive citizenship? What are its implications for substantive policy debates on issues such as economic revival? What does it imply for the reform of governmental institutions?
Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.