History of U.S. citizenship

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Citizenship in the United States began during colonial times as an active civic participation in local government marked by frequent public debate and broad participation in democracy, particularly in New England town halls. A variety of factors and forces changed this relationship over the nation's history. Today, citizenship is essentially a legal status signifying a right to live and work in the nation as well as enjoy certain rights and privileges defined by law.

Colonial years

Town hall meetings and direct democracy

Early European settlers to the Americas braved many dangers without much support from where they came. They were on their own. Their circumstances forced them to cooperate. Their situation was similar to that of ancient Greece, where cooperation was required for the Greek phalanx fighting method to be effective, and the military necessity favored the political growth of democracy.[1] A tradition began in New England of regular town meetings to coordinate activities.[2] If neighbors wanted a schoolhouse, they had to build it themselves. Survival demanded participation from people thinking rationally how to tackle problems. It was founded on an understanding of equality.[3] There was a military component too; neighbors had to band together in the event of attacks by Native Americans. People had to act as citizens. The meetings were examples of direct democracy[4] or "genuine" democracy.[5][6] These meetings gave people a chance to bring up any issue that they chose, and any attendee with a reasonable request had a chance to have that request heard. Citizens learned skills necessary for self-government: debating, thinking, compromising, listening. Many volunteered to serve in elected one-year offices such as treasurer, postmaster, clerk, justice of the peace.[7] By dividing work, nobody became too powerful or overworked; by widening participation, and shuffling positions, office holders learned valuable political skills hands-on, up-close, every day as well as gaining valuable experience.[8] People developed a respect for neighbors. They knew each other. People could see who the most able thinkers and legislators were and select them for higher office or more responsibility. Later thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville saw these meetings as important incubators of liberty.[2] Senator William E. Borah from Idaho in 1922 said there should be a granite monument to any town where it could be proved that the first New England town meeting was held.[5] Borah described these meetings:

Once each year every man residing in the limits of the township came, gave full expression to his views and had his vote counted. All affairs of government were here discussed and passed upon, policies were outlined, accepted or rejected–publicity in all public affairs was a reality and not a pretense. They chose their Selectmen, town officers and finally came to vote for their State and Federal officers–and were not haunted or harassed by the doubts and fears of the modern statesman whose erudition leads him to question the judgment and stability of the masses.[5]
(CC) Photo: Thomas Wright Sulcer
Citizens met regularly in New England town halls to listen to neighbors, make decisions, and run local affairs. The current town hall in Summit, New Jersey.

There was real interaction between governors and governed.[9] And decision-makers were close to their decisions–close in terms of distance as well as close in terms of time–so people could see quickly in a hands-on way whether a particular law was effective or not, and modify it accordingly. Participation fostered civic responsibility.[5] Extensive citizen participation meant that government functioned properly with little expense and government could change course rapidly when decisions were imperfect.[5]

Local self-government in all the term implies, active, vigorous, vigilant, jealously guarding and governing all matters of local or domestic concern, drawing the citizen for a season away from private affairs and enlisting his energies in public matters, identifying him with the actual needs and doings of the State and Government, are indispensable to a healthy, durable Federal system. Our fathers understood this well, and were wise and cautious in jealously guarding it when they came to frame the Federal system. If they were wise to preserve it, their children will be wise to continue to preserve it.[5]

Jean Elshtain commented on Tocqueville's discussion of citizenship:

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic work Democracy in America, argued that one reason the American democracy he surveyed was so sturdy was that citizens took an active part in public affairs. This is important because participating in public affairs means one must move from exclusive and narrowly private interests and occasionally take a look at matters that concern others. In Tocqueville's words, As soon as common affairs are treated in common, each man notices that he is not as independent of his fellows as he used to suppose and that to get their help he must often offer his aid to them. In this way civic engagement helped to underscore what Tocqueville called "self-interest properly understood," an interest that was never narrowly focused on the self.[10]

Educational aspects of town meetings

The town meetings had an educational function too. Thomas Jefferson called the New England town meeting "the best school of political liberty the world ever saw."[11] It taught people how to use reasoned arguments, how to compromise, how to think and speak and persuade, and citizens skilled in the give-and-take later rose to become important statesmen in the original Thirteen Colonies. By example, older citizens could teach younger ones how to participate. Borah wrote "local rule is the great university in which is reared and trained and equipped the kind of statesmen who take care that no harms comes to the Republic."[5] These meetings helped teach people "how to use democracy" and "enjoy it" according to Tocqueville.[6]

Picture from a postcard of a town square in France in 1900; buildings surround a square where there's a market.
The concept of the public sphere came from Renaissance developments in Europe; in this photo of a town in France in 1900, the town square was embodied architecturally in city planning as a physical space between authorities and citizens where people could discuss public matters.

It was by no means perfect. Professor Benjamin R. Barber admitted that democratic politics could be "fairly raucous but with certain limits" and sometimes manifested a "rhetorical incivility within the boundaries of bipartisan politics;" but overall he concluded it was "a healthy manifestation of political conflict and disagreement."[12] And some of the Framers distrusted these meetings; James Madison wrote that at town meetings, "passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason."[6] And citizenship was limited to adult men. And the unfortunate exception to citizenship was, of course, slavery, in which slaves obviously were neither citizens nor enjoyed basic rights, and this issue was to cause serious national mayhem throughout the nation's history and continues to reverberate in the present. One writer (2003) described democracy this way: "For the founding fathers, the ideal citizen was a white, property-owning male whose vote was a ratification of a fellow prominent citizen's trustworthiness to lead ... Contemporary democratic staples like freedom of the press, party politics, open deliberation, campaigns, and even widespread public education were not considered vital elements for citizenship in the colonial period ... Our first version of democratic citizenship was, in Schudson's analysis, a politics of assent."[13] Nevertheless, Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter wrote that "the New England town-hall meeting was the earliest form of American democracy and it remains the best place to watch, listen, ask questions and then go home and think."[14] Writers such as Solzhenitsyn believed "democracy works well in small units where the voters know the candidates personally and exercise self-restraint" such as in Switzerland or New England town meetings.[15]

The public sphere

As American towns grew, a phenomenon brought from Europe which evolved during the Renaissance happened in America too. The public sphere was a place between private individuals and government authorities in which people could meet and have rational-critical debates about public matters. Discussions served as a counterweight to political authority and happened physically in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses]] and cafes and[public squares as well as in the media in letters, books, drama, and art.[16] It was brought on partially by merchants' need for accurate information about distant markets as well as by the growth of democracy and individual liberty and popular sovereignty, according to democratic theorists such as Jürgen Habermas. Habermas saw a vibrant public sphere as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed.

The American Revolution

Picture of the document of the Declaration of Independence (US) dated 1776.
A savvy cadre of leaders skilled in democracy emerged from local governments in colonial America and challenged Great Britain by signing the Declaration of Independence.

The United States Constitution

By 1776, many citizens had such skill and experience in self-government that their generation produced an outstanding cadre of first-class thinkers educated not only in the political wisdom of antiquity, but in the nuts and bolts of governing, and their collective skill surpassed that of the British Parliament and monarchy. Americans could see how, despite their relative lack of financial resources, and despite their general lack of education compared with their counterparts in Great Britain, they were not considered as true citizens in the British world since they were denied basic representation in Parliament. They rightly protested taxation without representation. It led to a successful revolution.

While the political masterwork of the United States Constitution built representative government into an intelligent federal system, the document failed to define citizenship. Who was a citizen? What was citizenship? These issues were unaddressed. Some historians see this as an oversight, while others suggest it was a planned omission guided by Federalists who distrusted the public. One writer suggested the American system was built on preventing a "badly educated populace" from making poor choices and accordingly devised a system which dispersed power and "filtered the whims of the masses through an elected body and dispersed power by dividing the government into three branches."[17] Anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry argued for a Bill of Rights, and these were included, although the Federalist James Madison whittled them down in number to ten.

The new government faced conflicting pressures. The relatively uninhabited Americas–compared with other continents–and the need for skilled labor led to pressures to encourage immigrants to sail to America to help build the country. At the same time, the party in power wondered how new immigrants in power would vote. When John Adams was president, the Federalists in the Congress assumed that many immigrants would vote for the Democratic-Republican party and not vote for Federalists, so the Alien and Sedition Act was passed in 1798 which extended the period of time required for naturalization. Thus, immigrants had to reside in the United States for 14 years, not merely 5, before they were eligible to apply for citizenship.[18][19] A recurring pattern throughout American political life is that the party in power will favor immigration if it believes that immigrants will vote their way, or make immigration rules difficult if they see future opponents. As a result, rules regarding immigration, built up over centuries, have become complex.

Aristotle predicted democracy would fail as population expanded beyond the "small compass of Greece's mass or town meeting" but he didn't account for the principle of representation.[20]

Alexis de Tocqueville

Picture of a somber looking man wearing a blue coat, with dark hair, resting his arm on a chair.
Alexis de Tocqueville toured America extensively in the 1830s and thought the principle of equality drove Americans to pursue commercial success.

In the 1830s, visiting America, Tocqueville thought that a powerful influence guiding the destiny of American democracy was the principle of equality.[21] Unlike Europe, in America nobody saluted clergy or professors, for example. People treated each other equally (with the painful exception of slavery). And, as Tocqueville saw it, the natural human yearning for distinction and respect could not be satisfied through feudal inherited structures, but rather by one's commerce and industry, and he saw a feverish hunt for wealth everywhere in America. A national focus on economic betterment brought many advantages, but one casualty was declining civic participation. Helping out in town affairs didn't pay much, generally; as frontier dangers receded and the population expanded, many citizens stayed away from meetings and instead pursued jobs and careers and money, or simply stayed home. Participation in government, after all, wasn't required; people showing up for a community meeting couldn't force no-shows to show. Sometimes declining attendance was welcomed by attendees, since it helped some decisions happen faster and with less conflict, and it gave attendees relatively more power to decide matters. The idea of freedom as freedom to be left alone was given philosophical credence in the mid nineteenth century by the philosopher John Stuart Mill who wrote On Liberty. Mill wrote: "The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."[22] And social pressure to cooperate began to erode. Fixing one's house or raising one's salary or expanding one's business brings a direct benefit, while debating in a town council about where to build a new firehouse, for example, brings an indirect benefit, and direct benefits usually trump indirect ones; this is another phrasing of the famous problem of the Commons.

The declining citizen participation in town governments was balanced, to some extent, by participation in associations. Tocqueville concluded "Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations."[23] There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types–religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large, and very minute."[23] The associations formed bonds between people and helped people solve local problems locally. A volunteer garden club, for example, could plant flowers in public parks which helped beautify towns without costing the town money; it was a form of civic participation, in a sense, since it was related to the task of governing in a tangential way. Tocqueville thought town meetings were a "marvel of municipal freedom" and he was impressed how people could settle their affairs "with no distinction of rank."[24]

Declining civic engagement

Still, fewer people showing up in local government councils to volunteer as officers or workers or knowledgeable citizens in town meetings meant that when municipal problems required action, such as road repairs or leaks in school roofs, there weren't enough local volunteers to tackle the problem. A new schoolhouse was needed, for example; but there weren't enough volunteers to build it.

Accordingly, town governments faced a choice of (1) raising taxes to get funds to hire a local contractor to do the work of the no-shows, or (2) asking a higher level of government to solve the problem, such as a county government. As a result, taxes inched up, and control over decisions moved to higher and higher levels of government. As decades passed, decision-making power left the town governments as county and state governments were being asked to cope with local problems; even the federal government became a primary problem-solver, but this didn't happen primarily until the twentieth century.

A slew of problems related to declining civic participation affected citizenship at this point.

  • Feedback loop moving power away from local governments. Once a type of decision was hiked up the chain of government, authority didn't revert back since officials at higher levels had more money and power to exercise, and clung to these powers as best they could. Town agendas shrank to mundane tasks like zoning decisions or garbage pickups, and since there were fewer matters to decide locally, people had one more reason not to attend town meetings––why attend local meetings if there was little to decide? How important was it to argue over garbage pickups, for example? So there was a kind of feedback loop working against local government, eroding local citizens' participation, which meant, in turn, that fewer people learned the vital skills of self-governance, and didn't get a chance to debate, think, and use reason to solve problems, and didn't have to learn how to forge compromise by listening to differing viewpoints with a respectful patience, and began to lose touch with their neighbors, and a vital training ground for politicians to learn hands-on democracy was dying at the source.
  • Self-selecting candidates and career politicians. Fewer citizens participating in government meant that the ones showing up had relatively more power, particularly at higher levels of government. Politics became a full time game for cynical professionals tempted to rig rules to engineer re-election, and with fewer eyes watching, and more money changing hands to solve problems, corrupt officials could hide mischief or jigger the election rules with gerrymandering to make it easier for incumbents to win re-election. Statesmen were replaced by career politicians. When townsfolk all participated in local councils and paid attention to discussions, people could see who were the best and brightest, and people could choose these few to be their representatives, and coax them into representing their town in higher posts in county or state government or even in national assemblies such as the Continental Congress. But as time went by, and fewer townsfolk paid attention to local meetings, townsfolk were less able to see who were the best people in local government, to know which people were smart, articulate, honest. In this vacuum, it was possible for ambitious people to push themselves forward as candidates instead of being chosen by others, and since there were fewer eyes minding the store, so to speak, it was harder to choose the best candidates. And there was a shrinking pool of people from which to choose a candidate as well. So, gradually, the practice of knowledgeable citizens selecting leaders became replaced with candidates selecting themselves. And these self-selecting candidates were less likely to bring a benevolent impartial fairness to politics, but often were motivated by their own purposes, including needs for power, respect, money. And political parties became organized into vast public relations machines to get candidates elected. There was concern that a "minority of professional party organizers" had too much power.[20] A ruling buried inside a complex legislative decision could divert dollars to hidden pockets. Politics became progressively less well understood, complex, corrupt, dirty, and this further turned citizens away from politics.
  • Government employees. During the nineteenth century, government grew slowly as an employer, but this process accelerated during the twentieth century, particularly during the New Deal. But when government employs a citizen, there's a conflict of interest, since the citizen's boss is, in essence, the government. The government-employee has trouble being an impartial player or referee regarding government decisions since in many situations the government employee has a vested interest in gaining more power and getting more pay. For example, suppose a town with three schoolhouses needs a fourth, but it can't build one with volunteer citizen labor because there weren't enough people showing up at town meetings to volunteer to hammer the structure together. So, the town hires an official to build schools. This official has a vested interest in building even more schools, not merely the fourth schoolhouse, but perhaps a fifth or sixth schoolhouse as well, even though the town may not need these extra buildings, because this building activity helps justify their job. When whole classes of people became government employees, such as postal workers or road repair workers, the conflict-of-interest issue became more vexing.
  • Growing distance between decision-makers and decisions. In colonial days, when townsfolk made a law, they could see up-close and fast whether the law was working, and amend it accordingly if it wasn't; but as more distant governments were making decisions about local matters, the rules were less likely to be effective and took longer to amend. However, there were some pluses when state governments took over rule-making: rules were broader, more uniform, and beneficial in many instances. For example, statewide rules about street signs were more likely to be uniform in a way to aid travelers and this was a positive development. But there were instances in which the broad-brush approach to local problems didn't work well.
  • Receding military threat. Dangers posed by militant native Americans receded quickly and there was little danger from invasion by British forces from Canada, although there was a brief war with Britain from 1812–1814. As a result, it was not generally necessary for citizens to band together for mutual protection and defense like during the American Revolution. Citizens didn't need to meet and agree about defense. Accordingly, citizenship became increasingly seen as a right or entitlement and not as a necessity for survival against attack, since external authorities such as the federal government could make such decisions for them.

Positive factors redefining citizenship

Picture of a one dollar bill with George Washington's picture on it circa 1928.
A dollar bill in 1928. Freedom to earn money and generate wealth and float new businesses became a big part of citizenship, since Americans with steady jobs didn't need government help but could support themselves.

While these developments tended to erode citizenship, some highly positive forces expanded citizenship, but in a direction away from self-governance. Since people were freed from local civic commitments, Americans could focus on money and jobs and self-betterment and careers and businesses. They could invent new labor-saving gadgets. New opportunities opened up for shoppers and consumers to select from a wide assortment of ever-expanding products which could make life comfortable and fun and entertaining. An American with a steady job or successful business didn't need local government or other citizens. If a person needed something, he or she could buy it. A booming economy meant freedom. This, as well, increased opportunities for education. In addition, a rule-bound legal system based on precedent and a commitment to stare decisis enforced with a hierarchy of courts ranging from municipal courts to the Supreme Court meant that there were protections for businesses and consumers with a legal establishment which could enforce contracts and rights which proved to be an effective foundation for economic growth. Further, newspapers and the media acted as a check on government corruption, often exposing serious flaws and leading to efforts at political reform. And, the advent of a two-party system meant that the nation could alternate periodically between a left-leaning pro-labor pro-farmer orientation and a right-leaning pro-business pro-merchant pro-trade orientation, and this regular peaceful change between conflicting orientations every few decades or so had a positive benefit in preventing corruption and pleasing different groups of people within society, and keeping a balance of power.

Economic activity needed a strong legal system to enforce contracts as well as manage financial instruments such as mortgages, deeds, and handle disparate aspects of business law. The introduction of complex financial vehicles such as stocks and bonds as well as increasingly complex risk management products such as insurance further developed the world of business law. Consumer protection became important. A strong legal culture with respects for rights and property made it possible to emphasize the legal aspects of the relation of citizenship.

As a result, citizenship became less defined by civic participation in local government, and more defined as a legal matter. Citizenship wasn't defined by how one contributed in government; rather, it became more of a legal status, a kind of membership in America, a right to vote, to work, to make money. Adult men were thought of as citizens of the United States as well as citizens of their respective state, such as New York or Connecticut or New Jersey. The growing nation didn't face serious military threats and, as a result, it wasn't necessary for all citizens to cooperate for the successful prosecution of wars; rather, a volunteer or paid army was sufficient to meet early threats, generally, that is, until the Civil War.

Picture of a battle with many soldiers in blue, on the right, attacking soldiers in gray uniforms in a fort on the left, with an American flag flying, and white smoke throughout.
The Civil War undermined the concept of states' rights and had important ramifications for citizenship, including voting rights for African-Americans following the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Civil War

Expansion of the citizenship franchise

The aftermath of the Civil War brought a slew of changes which affected citizenship dramatically. African-Americans were freed from slavery and defined by a new amendment in 1868 to be "citizens"; in fact, this was the first mention of citizenship in the Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment declared that all citizens had equal rights under the law. The amendment read: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." While free, African-Americans were excluded from important parts of the burgeoning economy and were, in effect, second-class citizens because of treatment such as segregation which the Supreme Court legalized under the doctrine of separate but equal in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. Since the meaning of citizenship was shifting from political participation to legal status, it was possible to admit a whole new group of persons–African-American men–as citizens without shaking up the political order. Citizenship was a token, a legal marker, a label, and while it conferred certain legal rights as well as a power to vote, these could be suppressed and distorted. What was important was ability to prosper in America's burgeoning market economy, and being largely excluded from economic participation, most African-Americans couldn't fully enjoy their newfound freedom.

States' rights

Since the South tried to revolt under the banner of states' rights, and lost, the concept of states' rights was discredited to an extent, according to a subsequent analysis by Senator Borah writing in 1922.[5] Borah thought that the Constitution divided powers so that all matters of domestic concern and local interests were given to state governments, while matters for general government were given to Washington, and wrote "upon the integrity of the States after all rests the integrity and permanency of the Union–that upon the principle of local self-government rests the perpetuity of republican institutions."[5] Thinkers such as Tocqueville as well as Lincoln[5] and Supreme Court Justice Harlan[5] believed a federal system would work best in which individual states had great power and freedom and autonomy to govern themselves, since it allowed people dissatisfied with a particular state government to move to a neighboring state to seek a better state government.[25] This freedom of movement between states, it was argued, was a powerful brake on corruption in any one state, since a badly-governed state would have difficulty attracting and keeping residents. Given choices between states, citizens, by being free to move and change states, had more freedom. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote "No political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the States and of compounding the American people into one common mass."[5] But the Civil War required the federal government to impose its will on individual states, and a precedent working against states' autonomy had been set, and the natural feedback loop pushing decision-making away from local town councils now could push control away from state governments to the national government in Washington. In addition, state governments lost more control when in 1913 the seventeenth amendment took away their power to appoint US Senators, which removed an important voice they had had in national politics. And the Supreme Court could use vaguely worded parts of the Constitution such as the Commerce Clause to validate federal power over state government decision-making in cases such as Lochner v. New York (1911) or in later cases in the twentieth century such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) or Roe v. Wade (1974).

Twentieth century

Population increase and citizenship

Black and white picture of a large public building tilting slightly to the left.
The growing town of Biddeford, Maine found town meetings to be dysfunctional and elected to become a city in 1855.

America's rapid population increase meant that each individual's relative power to exert political influence became less. Population growth made it harder for town meetings to regulate well. One writer described town meetings in Biddeford, Maine as becoming inadequate by about 1855, dysfunctional, with decisions being made by "anonymous" participants; in that year, residents elected Biddeford to become a city.[26]

In 1900, James T. Clark wrote: "It is simple enough to yet gather the opinion and will of a hundred men who can meet together, but multiplication of numbers and wide distribution, as in our present conditions, so change and complicated the case as to make the construction of a democracy almost a wholly different matter."[20] There was concern that as America's population expanded, that the political machinery had not been adjusted accordingly. Clark wrote in The New York Times:

For one hundred years and more we have worked along with the simple machinery our founders set up, while the conditions of democracy have changed from the simple to the complex. Meanwhile, we have made no conscious, premeditated adjustment... This was the professional politician's or party organizer's opportunity. He has volunteered and assumed to keep the machine running on the tacit condition that he should control the result. The power which he has gained by this service is only the measure of how essential a prop it was to the outgrown structure of our fathers, and, also, how perfectly designed the politicians' own party system of delegation is to organize the great body of voters for his own ends. The politician has adopted and applied to his own purposes the principle of representation or delegation, so slighted in our statutory election system as to count for little or nothing ... No one questions the effectiveness, even the natural perfection, for its function, of the old town meeting plan of government, where the best opinion of the community could be gathered and the fittest men be selected to administer the public affairs, because all men were known of all men ... Now representation or delegation is the only means by which populations so large as not to be collectible in town meeting can be given a true voice in public affairs. This principle the politician has adopted in his party system, for his own ends; so that what now is put forward by him as the people's voice in elections is a ventriloquism that comes from the politician's own belly.[20]

Another writer saw citizenship as closely identified with party politics, and wrote that "the ideal citizen was a party loyalist, aware of his party's passions and convictions and active in the carnivalesque atmosphere of conventions and election days."[27] And philosophers such as Aristotle and Machiavelli believed that it was difficult for democracy to exist in heavily-populated city-states or nations. When the nation grew, town meetings were no longer capable of dealing with larger issues, particularly when they involved entire counties, regions, states or all states.[28] One writer in 1911 wrote that "common interests could be attended to only by delegates or representatives" and identified the two principles helping keep democracy alive in the United States and helping it grow "so far and so fast" were (1) representation and (2) federation.[28]

Doubling of the citizenship franchise

The growing economy and the growing sense of citizenship as a legal status unlinked with civic participation meant that differing political parties, jostling for power at all levels of government, could consider admitting new persons or groups into citizenship as a way to swell the ranks of voters hopefully in their favor. Politicians could widen citizenship with little impact on their grip on political power since the civic-duty aspects of citizenship were declining and since Americans were paying less and less attention to the political process. Admitting new groups of citizens was not a serious challenge to the authority of both political parties, but if handled properly, could give one political party a slight edge in upcoming elections depending on how the newly admitted groups voted. Since, according to political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, Americans were losing interest in politics,[29] and were less willing to embrace civic responsibility.[30] the net of citizenship could be widened with little impact. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas noticed the contradiction in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and noted that while the public widened, the public sphere shrunk, so that more people were counted technically as citizens but the actual task of citizenship-as-civic-action was shrinking.[16][31][32]

Americans were increasingly focusing on being workers and employers and investors and consumers and less as being citizens.[33] The economy expanded. Voting declined. Ginsberg suggested in 1998 in a controversial analysis that government could extend rights of modern citizenship to diverse new groups such as minorities and women, as well as encouraging voting as an alternative to more dangerous unwanted protests, such as striking or rioting, as a way to tame a wary public.[34] He wrote: "To vote meant not to strike or riot," and the state preferred citizens to vote rather than have more serious challenges to its power such as lawsuits, protests, union organizing, parliamentary procedure, or lobbying.[34]

Picture of seven women wearing different dresses and hats with the words "First woman jury, Los Angeles" on the top of this black and white photo.
When women were recognized as citizens, they could participate in jury duty as well.

Accordingly, the citizenship franchise expanded further. Women were admitted into citizenship after long advocacy by prominent activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. Women could vote and run for office. The electorate doubled in size. And this was an important marker in the status and power of women. But the influx of women-as-citizens did not reverse the general trend towards declining civic participation in local government.


The Great Depression had huge ramifications for citizenship. It brought Democrats to power under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt who took drastic steps at the federal level in 1933 to respond to massive unemployment and bank failures. The New Deal featured an array of federal programs such as the Works Progress Administration as well as Social Security which redistributed money from some groups of citizens to other groups of citizens. As before, the issue of how citizenship was affected by these large transfers of money was largely ignored, but aid recipients joined government employees as persons getting substantial income from government largesse. Could persons receiving paychecks from the federal government behave as responsible and impartial citizens? Aid recipients were officially and legally "citizens" despite their inability to support themselves. And federal government, being considerably removed by time and space from the aid recipients themselves, had a difficult job ferreting out persons truly needy of aid from the borderline cases, and resulting fraud made it more expensive to run aid programs, leading to higher taxes and waste as well as possibly corrupted aid-recipient citizens. Washington swelled. The federal budget expanded exponentially.

Black and white picture of a city sidewalk with an elderly man leaning against a side of a building wearing a hat, with hands in overalls.
The Great Depression led to many changes in citizenship, including a huge increase in persons receiving aid from the Federal government.

Expansion of the federal government

In 1922, Senator Borah warned: "Under no circumstances should the national Government undertake to deal with those things which are essentially local."[5] He suggested that "when a people cease to be active in the affairs of government" that oligarchy follows shortly thereafter.[5] Tocqueville had made a similar warning back in 1835. He wrote that when local authorities had the power to administer laws made by higher governments such as counties or states, then there was a healthy measure of control; but what Tocqueville found alarming was when state or national government not only made the laws, but administered them; he described this as potentially "dangerous."[35][36]

Federal government spending 1940–present
Decade Spending as % of GDP Surplus(+) or deficit(-)?
1940s -9.67 Deficit
1950s -0.39 Deficit
1960s -0.79 Deficit
1970s -2.37 Deficit
1980s -3.93 Deficit
1990s -2.16 Deficit
2000s -1.62 Deficit

Note: Largest deficit was for WW2. 1998-2002 had surpluses. For brevity, annual numbers were combined into ten-year averages. Source: US Government statistics.[37][38]

World War II


See also: Extrajudicial detention, U.S.
Black and white picture of perhaps 30 people dressed, outdoors, happy, with American flag on pole in background.
120,000 Japanese-Americans, of which roughly 60% were technically documented American "citizens", spent World War II as prisoners in internment camps like this one in Arizona. They broke no laws. In 1945, they were happy their ordeal was over.

World War II lifted the nation out of the Depression and saw massive numbers of Americans in uniform fighting on two different shores, including African-American males, who could use the experience in subsequent generations to demand an end to segregation and equal treatment under law. One tragedy, however, was the treatment and detention of over a hundred twenty thousand west coast Japanese-Americans during the war. Many were second generation Japanese, born in America, and therefore citizens by birthright; estimates of citizens among the detainees were 62%[39] or 58%.[40] But since military authorities worried that saboteurs and spies for Japan might be lurking within this group, and were unable to identify which persons might possibly have been dangerous, authorities,based on Executive Order 9066, detained them during the war. German-Americans and Italian-Americans were not treated similarly, leading to accusations that the United States government committed a bias crime because the Japanese-Americans were more easily identified by racial characteristics. The detentions were challenged in court; in Korematsu v. United States, the court decided that the detentions were justified on grounds of national security, although decades later, the general sense is that the detentions had been immoral, even counter-productive. In a real sense, the internment illustrated the fragility of citizenship.

Tax withholding

Expensive war munitions required government to raise taxes further, but it was difficult prompting Americans to save tax money for an annual payment. Paying taxes was traditionally seen as a duty of citizenship, and as time went by, and as Americans gradually abandoned civic participation to pursue private enterprise, taxes increased partly as a way to compensate for declining involvement. Further, people had more money to pay increased taxes. But the possibility that citizens might refuse to pay taxes was, in one respect, a check on the power of government.

But this citizenship power was lost during the war. In 1943, when the federal government raised taxes further, a major collection issue loomed.[41] While there was strong support for the war effort, resources were tight, and Americans hadn't been saving to meet the needs of an increased annual tax bill. A former Macy's executive named Beardsley Ruml conceived a plan to bypass citizens by forcing employers to pay taxes directly to government regularly on their behalf. Here's how it worked according to New York Times writer Amith Shlaes:

Picture of a woman holding a long cylindrical wiry cable, seated indoors
Connecticut cable-grip manufacturer Vivien Kellems protested tax withholding vigorously. She refused to withhold taxes for her 100+ employees and challenged the Internal Revenue Service in federal court in the late 1940s.[42][43][44]
The government would get business to do its work, collecting taxes for it. Employers would retain a percentage of taxes from workers every week–say, 20 percent–and forward it directly to Washington's war chest. This would hide the size of the new taxes from the worker. No longer would the worker ever have to look his tax bill square in the eye. Workers need never even see the money they were forgoing. Withholding as we know it today was born ... This was more than change, it was transformation. Government would put its hand into the taxpayer's pocket and grab its share of tax--without asking ... Ruml had several reasons for wagering that his project would work. One was that Americans, smarting from the Japanese assault, were now willing to sacrifice more than at any other point in memory. The second was that the federal government would be able to administer withholding–six successful years of Social Security showed that the government, for the first time ever, was able to handle such a mass program of revenue collection. The third was packaging. He called his program not collection at source or withholding, two technical terms for what he was doing. Instead he chose a zippier name: pay as you go.[41]

Ruml's scheme of tax withholding promoted as pay-as-you-go greatly increased tax compliance but undermined citizenship, since citizens lost the power to voice displeasure with government by threatening to not pay taxes.[41] Prominent conservative thinker Milton Friedman who had supported tax withholding came to regret the choice later.[41] Friedman wrote:

We concentrated single-mindedly on promoting the war effort. We gave next to no consideration to any longer-run consequences. It never occurred to me at the time that (by advocating tax withholding) I was helping to develop machinery that would make possible a government that I would come to criticize severely as too large, too intrusive, too destructive of freedom. Yet, that was precisely what I was doing ... There is an important lesson here. It is far easier to introduce a government program than to get rid of it.[41]

After the war, tax withholding persisted, since government officials now had resources to enact a variety of programs with little fear of popular protest via non-payment of taxes.[41]


After the war, the nation resumed a path to prosperity. Some writers blamed increasing wealth for exacerbating the decline in political participation.[45] Kaplan wrote: "Aristophanes and Euripides, the late-eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson, and Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century all warned that material prosperity would breed servility and withdrawal, turning people into, in Tocqueville's words, industrious sheep."[45] There are instances in which technology makes it less necessary to rely on neighbors; for example, in Mount Vernon, Maine, telephone service in the 1960s used to be routed by two elderly operators "who knew everyone in town", but with new dialing technology, their assistance was no longer needed.[11] Today Ipod music technology means people can walk down a public sidewalk practically oblivious to others, in their own private worlds. Tocqueville saw a natural tendency for democratic peoples to turn inwards, to tune out others.[46] Being in public doesn't make us feel important, so we turn to families, friends, television, entertainment, that is, we turn away from public life. He wouldn't have been surprised to see pedestrians listening to iPods oblivious to others. He hoped local organizations and civic groups and churches would counteract this trend and help people turn outward.[47]

A speech in 1996 by Jean Elshtain at Brigham Young University looked at democracy in that year, Elshtain spoke about the analysis of Tocqueville:

In Tocqueville's worst-case scenario, narrowly self-involved individualists, disarticulated from the saving constraints and nurture of overlapping associations of social life, would move to a bad and isolating egoism. Once that happened, they would require more controls from above in order to muffle the disintegrative effects of egoism. To this end, if you would forestall this moment of democratic despotism, civic spaces between citizens and the state would need to be secured and nourished. Only many small-scale civic bodies would enable citizens to cultivate the democratic virtues and to play an active role in their communities. These civic bodies would be in and of the community--not governmentally derived, not creatures of the state.[48]

Declining attendance at town meetings

During the second half of the twentieth century, attendance at town meetings continued to decline. In 1970, in Mount Vernon, Maine, 120 of 596 inhabitants gathered for the annual town meeting.[49] In 1977, a Time Magazine reporter wrote that the "town meeting has been declining for decades—a casualty of increasing population and the complexity of issues."[24] In one study of attendance at town hall meetings from 1970 to 1998, only 20% of the town showed up.[2] One source suggested attendance at town meetings varied from 20% to 26%.[50] One independent writer wondered that the substance of town meetings in present times bordered on the absurd. For example, Victoria Rose Perkins questioned the importance of a town debating ad infinitum about the spelling of the town's name.[50] In the town of Huntington, Vermont, a meeting in March in 1977 was attended by only 130 out of 519 eligible citizens, that is, three of every four citizens stayed home.[24] The meeting lasted more than four hours and citizens discussed issues such as local real estate taxes and whether to buy a new fire truck (they did.)[24] The meeting had a social effect in helping people get to know their neighbors; the reporter concluded that "By and large, Huntingtonians seemed to genuinely like and trust each other."[24]

The 1960s were marked by street protests, demonstrations, rioting, civil unrest,[51] antiwar protests, and a cultural revolution.[52] African-American youth protested following victories in the courts regarding civil rights with street protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the NAACP.[53] But sit-ins, street protests, non-violent protests and lawsuits were the only ways for people to express discontent with the political system, since the possibility of attending town meetings to voice complaints was practically abandoned.

Picture of a street protest scene, with people lying down in a street, surrounded by police, onlookers, and stores in a big city.
Activists are pressured to stage bizarre protests to win media attention to try to win the support of the public; at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004, protesters lie down on a busy street as an act of civil disobedience.

Persons who cared about a political issue didn't have a place to express their concerns, since attendance at town meetings was minimal. So getting public attention was the first step in any effort to change policy, and this wasn't easy. Advertising was expensive. Lacking funds, many activists felt pressure to pull bizarre stunts to get free press coverage, since an off-the-wall news story might captivate the public imagination for a short time; accordingly, activists for the left such as Michael Moore made sarcastic documentary movies such as Roger & Me[54] to attract attention; activists from the right such as radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh made outrageous statements such as calling Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor a "reverse racist" to maintain radio ratings.[55] In contrast, activists such as supporters of the non-partisan FairTax tax simplification reform strategy who adopted a more reasonable approach often failed to win attention; since they were often reluctant to pull media stunts, the American public is mostly unaware of their proposal.[56] If activists succeeded at winning public attention without distorting their credibility, the next step was to persuade people to act, such as writing a letter to a congressperson. Here, too, there were obstacles to overcome, including public inertia. People mostly concluded that trying to accomplish some political goal was a waste of time. The few instances in which activism brought about successful political change in recent years were instances in which there was an aggrieved group, such as African-Americans or feminists or homosexuals, who felt the sting of bad policy over time, and who conducted long-range campaigns of protest together with media campaigns to change public opinion along with campaigns in the courts to change policy.

Erosion of trust

However, overall, the pattern is that trust between citizens seems to be declining.[48] Poll data suggest that people are less and less likely to trust their neighbors, with a marked shift from 1960 (60%) to 1993 (38%) of people answering yes to the question "Do you believe most people can be trusted, or can't you be too careful?"[48] Meyer wrote "Americans don't trust our institutions or one another" and "without trust, without a shared vocabulary, without community, we feel endangered."[57] Author Dick Meyer in Why We Hate Us describes an America in which people don't trust institutions or one another, and a declining sense of community.[57] Like Putnam, Meyer saw a drastic shift in values beginning about the 1960s, and blames ideological shifts as well as extensive involvement with the mass media and suburban sprawl.[57]

One reason offered to explain declining civic involvement is some municipal problems require experts and professionals and therefore citizens are not needed.[50][58] Declining civic engagement paralleled declining church attendance[59] and declining newspaper readership among the young.[60] There were questions whether young Americans are learning enough to stay informed about public issues.[60] Membership in communal groups like the Parent Teacher Association is declining; it had 9.5 million members, or nine percent of the adult population, in 1955, but membership has been declining since the 1960s.[57] Writers such as Charles Murray described the decline in civic engagement and blamed government intervention for harming civic engagement.[61] Other writers notice a trend towards civic disengagement.[60][62]

Decline of social capital

For more information, see: Social capital.

By the late twentieth century, Harvard University professor of public policy Robert D. Putnam noticed a decline in civic engagement, including activities normally done by citizens such as voting or attending local meetings.[23] His 1995 seminal article Bowling Alone suggested that for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Americans were deeply involved in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities, but since the 1950s, baby boomers and Generation Xers and younger generations have gradually withdrawn from civic life; for example, from 1980 to 1993, the total number of bowlers increased by over 10%, yet league bowling fell by more than 40%.[23] "We are bowling alone rather than with our neighbors" according to his analysis.[23] The declining social capital which Putnam defines as the "sum of complex, dense networks of connections, values, norms, and reciprocal relationships in a community" means people are less inclined to do citizenship-related activities.[23] Putnam blames the rise of electronic entertainment, especially television, video games, and the Internet along with the pressures of time and money, the rise of two-income couples, increased commuting time, and urban sprawl.[23][62]

Civic disengagement by twenty-somethings–1970s vs 1990s
Civic activity 1970s 1990s Notes
Read newspaper daily 49% 21% [60]
Signed a petition 42% 23% [60]
Joined a union 15% 5% [60]
Attended a public meeting 19% 8% [60]
Wrote a congressperson 13% 7% [60]
Volunteered in a local organization 13% 6% [60]
Participated in student elections 75% 20% (California)[60]
Agree cleaning up environment is important 45% 19% UCLA freshmen[60]

Note: data from Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000) comparing 18-29 year olds in the 1972-1975 period with a similar age group during the Clinton years.[60]

Rutgers University political science professor Benjamin Barber sees a growing incivility in political discussions today and characterizes discussions as "divisive" with "almost no listening" and "no visible modification of opinion" and a "vilification of opponents." [12] Barber elaborated: "Divisive rhetoric has become not only disagreement between parties but a rejection of the legitimacy of the other side, validating a position that your opponents are immoral, un-American and possibly worthy of being subjected to violence," and added "Opponents become enemies of the Republic and the political process itself."[12] There is evidence that citizens have lost the ability to listen to each other; in a painting depicted by Norman Rockwell about a 1943 town meeting, neighbors listened to a man argue for an unpopular opinion; today, however, there are few instances in which people listen to alternative points of view.[2]

Citizenship today

Conservative writer William J. Bennett, despite noting a decline in civic participation, found resilience in the American character in the response after 9/11.[63] But others have been critical, thinking that government, in many instances, over-reacted to the threat of terrorism by removing many civil liberties, with expansive invasions of privacy with warrantless wiretapping, illegal searches and seizures and detentions of persons suspected with involvement with terrorists.

Mass media

Mass media effects on citizenship are mixed.

Picture of a tattered faded newspaper called "The Log Cabin".
Newspapers informed citizens, encouraged literacy, helped people share a common media experience, and served as a check on the power of political authorities.
  • Positive effects. Newspaper readership encourages the valuable citizenship skill of literacy. The mass media help people share a common media experience, such as a vivid awareness of where they were during the attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11; and common experiences help unite citizens with a common culture.[64] Further, radio and television and the Internet allow instantaneous transmission of news which helps citizens stay informed of new developments.[65] A video image of police abuse can have a powerful deterrent effect on future police abuse, and can keep overzealous officers within bounds if they're aware that possible abuse might be broadcast worldwide. While most citizens lack time and capacity to stay informed about political developments, particularly at the national level, reporters and editors can expose wrongdoing by public officials and publicize scandals and, in some respects, the Fourth Estate checks government power.[66] Media can change stereotypes in a positive way. For example, the television miniseries drama Roots by African-American writer Alex Haley chronicled a family's history from tribal Africa to the post-Civil War south and was viewed by 130 million people in 1977,[67] and it helped white Americans grasp the plight of African-Americans in America.[68] According to Dr. Juliet Walker of the University of Texas, Roots helped people "see the reality of slavery in a way in which historians have really not been able to do."[67] Writer Tim Arango in the New York Times suggested The Cosby Show "succeeded in changing racial attitudes enough to make an Obama candidacy possible."[69]
Picture of a woman.
A mass media culture can be entertaining but can also lead to mindless vicarious worship of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and encourage declining involvement with real neighbors.
  • Negative effects. But the drug of entertainment injected by the needle of mass media is a potent concoction keeping people away from neighbors and civic participation. Americans overly entertained are prone to cutting themselves off from flesh-and-blood neighbors and prefer the solitude of screen satisfaction. They fail to form ties of affection and respect and trust and become isolated, estranged, alienated, vulnerable, uninformed, and lose the skill of conversational give-and-take. Manners and politeness suffer. People have always had heroes such as Buffalo Bill[70] and have always loved good stories such as the Odyssey or the Iliad by the Greek bard Homer or the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil, or a Mark Twain novel,[70] but what's different today is the scale and power of the images as well as access to them. One commentator wrote that the revolution in powerful mass media graphics "has produced a shift in the values of many Americans away from 'work, family, and citizenship' and towards self-gratification."[71] People identify their dreams with the pseudo-immortality of celebrity.[71] A reporter wrote: "Fascination with fame permeates the media and occupies the daydreams of millions."[70][71] People know the images are carefully crafted fictional representations to appeal to a wide audience, but the images are powerful nevertheless in terms of influencing behavior and thought. Culture is reduced to gawking over celebrity antics and misdeeds: "Twentieth-century mass media coupled with the entertainment industry pushed the fame machinery into hyperdrive ... Welcome Brad and Angelina, the reigning Apollo and Daphne."[70] Faced with a choice of meeting a possibly cantankerous neighbor, or passively watching beautiful images on a moving screen, people increasingly choose screens, although some secondary schools try to teach students to be more objective with courses in media literacy and foster citizenship[72] with lessons about how a culture of celebrity worship is wasteful.[73] But civics as an academic discipline struggles to compete with dollar-oriented courses focused on making students employable,[74] and academic discussion about citizenship is an abstract exercise far removed from the actual exercise of democracy.

Free speech

Picture of people assembled outside as a protest.
University of Florida student Andrew Meyer was arrested and tasered while trying to ask a question after a speech by John Kerry on Constitution Day. Click to watch video. The taser incident sparked protests at different college campuses including this one at UCLA.

An incident at the University of Florida in 2007 may serve to illustrate citizenship today. Student Andrew Meyer rose to ask a question during a question-and-answer session following a speech by Democrat John Kerry to celebrate Constitution Day. Meyer wanted to make a statement and took a fairly long time to ask his "question", and before he was finished, he became involved in a scuffle with police officers and was tasered and arrested.[75] There were protest rallies against the police treatment later.[75] The University of Florida Taser incident was filmed and replayed widely on YouTube. In one sense, the incident morphed into a form of entertainment but since it was widely reported in the news media around the world,[75] it helped bring attention to issues such as free speech.

Town meetings today

Town meetings continue to happen today, although with greatly reduced attendance.[24] Local government decision-making was limited to a narrow range of topics unlikely to excite the attention of most residents. For example, in 2009 in the New England town of Smithfield, Rhode Island, the town agenda had issues such as housing, conservation, schools, the library, sewers, zoning, soil erosion, traffic safety, and so forth, and there were separate committees to discuss each issue.[76] The town's authority in many instances is circumscribed by decisions made at the county, state, or federal level. One of the top stories on the town website of Casco, Maine was dog licenses; they're set to expire on December 31, 2009, and it's difficult to imagine neighbors getting charged up to attend town meetings to discuss dog licensing.[77] Casco has a year-round population of 3,500, but swells to 15,000 during the summer. Volunteering exists; it has a "Town Meeting form of government with an elected 5 member board of selectmen and a Town Manager" with community volunteers who are the "backbone of the Town of Casco's Rescue Unit and Fire Department."[77]

The term town meeting has been somewhat distorted by the media; some television broadcasts describe shows as "town meetings" but they're more accurately described as "forums with supporters."[6] A candidate running for office will surround himself or herself with supporters, make a speech with a nice backdrop and camera-pleasing angles, and have the spectacle presented as if it's a "town meeting" in which there are active discussions happening; but such events are really public relations events analogous to political commercials. Some firms which specialize in the deliberative democracy business use trained facilitators, full-time staff, media and community outreach, and "a lot of technology."[2] The phrase "town hall meeting" is often used today to "signify a televised campaign event" and not a real but a "counterfeit" meeting since its primary purpose is to sell a political candidate.[2]

Political corruption and disenchantment

The trend towards career politicians has continued to the extent that there is public disenchantment with the political process.[78][79] Reelection rates for members of Congress hover around 90% suggesting that incumbents have a huge advantage over challengers because of access to money, gerrymandering, and franking privileges, and leading to accusations that the election process has been rigged to favor incumbents.[80][81][82][83]

Excessive government, leading to decreased individual responsibility, is a common theme in American conservatismm. Charles Murray argued that too much government involvement strips away responsibility from communities and, as a result, harms the "elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards and punishment (which) evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. He criticized the welfare state as causing
growing legions of children raised in unimaginably awful circumstances, not because of material poverty but because of dysfunctional families, and the collapse of functioning neighborhoods into Hobbesian all-against-all free-fire zones."[61]

There are further examples of the disconnectedness between citizens and lack of community. In Livingston, New Jersey in 2004, an elderly person died and the body lay undiscovered in the house for months.[62] In Montclair, New Jersey, people don't volunteer for the ambulance squad as much as before; "twenty years ago, it relied on a hundred volunteers, plus three paid Emergency medical technicians; now it has 23 professionals, only seven volunteers.[62] The decline of volunteer firefighting and emergency service organizations, however, may also be due to increased training requirements which, in addition to operations, requires too much time from volunteers. Montclair is among the wealthiest communities in the United States and can afford a professionalized force. However, one writer noticed that there were some block parties as well as informal networks.[62]

The idea of the citizen soldier is an American ideal, but, in mobilizing for the Gulf War, it was found that Army National Guard units assigned to "fill out" combat organizations were unable to meet training and readiness requirements. There has been a trend to assign reserve and National Guard forces to combat support and combat service support roles that may, such as law enforcement, medical, and transportation functions, will be closer to civilian roles and their training.

Nevertheless, when a newspaper story in USA Today in 2007 reported that each American household had liabilities of $516,348 for promises made by federal, state and local governments regarding future payouts for Medicare, Social Security, military benefits, state and local debt, federal civil service benefits, state and local retiree benefits, and other federal obligations, there were neither public protests nor serious discussion in town meetings, although there were comments from dissatisfied readers posted anonymously.[84]

Picture of a large yellow sign saying "Todos somos illegales -- we are all illegals" caption reads Protest against the legal treatment of immigrants in Santa Cruz, California.
Millions of illegal aliens in the United States work in low-wage jobs typically but are barred from applying for naturalized US citizenship in most cases.

Illegal aliens

In America, there are millions of people identified as illegal aliens who work in the nation, typically in low-wage menial jobs, but who lack the official legal designation of "citizen". In 2006, there were mass protests numbering hundreds of thousands throughout the US demanding U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants.[85] Many carried banners reading "We Have A Dream Too."[85] One estimate is that there are 12 million illegal immigrants in the USA in 2006.[85] Some individuals believe that there isn't much difference between illegal immigrants and officially-designated citizens other than their country of birth or the citizenship designation. Some believe, that they came for jobs, for economic opportunity, to escape more desperate circumstances in other nations, but they live in the shadows in constant fear of deportation. In some sense, the designation that some people are citizens and others are non-citizens creates a class system, a caste system, similar in some respects to ancient civilizations. Kaplan wrote: "Ancient Sparta, like Athens, was a two-tiered system, with an oligarchic element that debated and decided issues and a mass -- helots ("serfs") in Sparta, and slaves and immigrants in Athens—that had few or no rights.[45] Illegal immigration generates understandable criticism from legal residents. Some residents feel that illegal immigrants violate the law and spirit of immigration and mock those who undertook legitimate avenues of migration to enter the United States, disrupting the lower sectors of the economy, and displacing U.S. citizens from jobs and low-income housing. Additionally, in "sanctuary cities" such as New York, health care expenditures for illegal immigrants paid with public funds using public hospitals deprive legitimate U.S. citizens of vital services.

Dissatisfaction in Vermont

Picture of a two story Roman-style building with a gold dome with an American flag off to the left.
Vermont's state capitol building in Montpelier, Vermont. Citizens complain about a burdensome federal government and have been discussing possible secession from the United States.[86]

And political citizenship, while subdued in most parts of the country, remains alive in places like in Vermont's 237 towns where a newspaper account reported recently that "every citizen is a legislator who helps fashion the rules that govern the locality."[86] People attending the meeting didn't waste time with "superfluous static" but managed with "quiet efficiency" since "the townspeople have a deep respect for parliamentary procedure and law."[11] There have been informal reports that 62% of people attending Vermont's town meetings are actively thinking about Vermont's membership in the United States.[86] One article in 2007 described the people of Vermont as considering secession based on such issues as dissatisfaction with the growth and power and corruption of the federal government which some believe has eroded fundamental freedoms.[86]

Jury duty and citizenship

Some writers see the institution of the New England town meeting embodied in the jury. "The jury is a direct democracy. It's the New England town meeting writ large. It's the people themselves governing."[87] Others see jury duty as a useless chore to be avoided; comedian Norm Crosby once joked "When you go into court, you're putting your fate into the hands of 12 people who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty."[87] In New York, many categories of people were automatically exempt from jury duty, including doctors, lawyers, firefighters, police officers, and others, until a decision changed that.[87] And there is some evidence of a trend to undo the "automatic exemptions" of many professions across the nation.[87] While many Americans think the idea of being a juror is important, most agree the act of actually serving on one is "inconvenient".[87] One study found the response to jury summonses to be "extremely low" with sometimes only 15 people showing up out of a list of 100 names.[87] Many people don't get summonses since the juror lists are often outdated or incomplete.[87] Some people showing up for jury duty find the assembly room full, and end up returning home and feeling like their time was wasted.[87] Only 20% of people summoned for jury duty actually get put on a trial.[87] And payment is low, sometimes barely enough to cover parking fees.[87]

Writing relating to the history of U.S. citizenship

Writing ranges from the strictly scholarly to the ideological. Jürgen Habermas, for example, is more a general philosopher and sociologist than a U.S. historian. Naomi Wolf is a clearly ideological contemporary commentator, as is Dana D. Nelson from an academic milieu.

Benjamin Ginsberg and Matthew Crenson

See also: Benjamin Ginsberg
See also: Matthew Crenson

Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg along with co-author Matthew Crenson offers a different interpretation about why citizenship expanded to different groups such as minorities and women. Ginsberg thinks government used tactics such as extending rights of modern citizenship to minorities and women as well as encouraging voting as a deliberate alternative to more dangerous unwanted protests, such as striking or rioting; expanding citizenship, in his view, was a method to tame a wary public.[34] He wrote: "To vote meant not to strike or riot," and the state preferred citizens to vote rather than have more serious challenges to its power such as lawsuits, protests, union organizing, parliamentary procedure, or lobbying.[34] Since elections happen periodically, they limit citizen participation in politics to merely the selection of leaders and keep people away from policy formation.[34] Ginsberg agreed there was dwindling civic participation in America and he chronicled a pattern of reduced interest in civic groups, using diminished Lions Club attendance from the 1970s to 2004, as an example of the "decline of mass political participation."[29] Ginsberg argued that civic decline is "not simply a consequence of the decay of civil society brought on by TV, suburbanization and busy lives."[29] "Citizens became less vigilant and involved, and interests like the banks and railroads came to control the very commissions that were supposed to work on behalf of the public good."[29] Ginsberg criticized "statutes and judicial rulings" for making advocacy by litigation commonplace, and effectively removing many issues from the political arena.[29] Authors Ginsberg and Crenson charted the declining importance of citizenship in America.[33] People are better described as consumers, not citizens and no longer embrace civic responsibility or bother to vote and the public has chosen to stay aloof from government which is seen as "another service provider."[33] Candidates use public opinion polls to focus on the dwindling number of persons who actually show up to vote.[33]

Increasing court involvement is blamed, as well, for diminishing the role of public sentiment, and the authors see the 1960s civil rights movement as having morphed into a litigation struggle about rights and a middle class prerogative.[33][30] They argue that citizens, who used to be the "backbone of the western state," are no longer relevant.[30] While government has grown, influential citizens have been reduced to mere recipients of government services and "marginalized as political actors."[30] Government can raise an army and collect taxes without widespread public support; the withholding tax has made the voluntary component of tax paying less important; a professional military limits the need for citizen soldiers; special interests provide bureaucrats with a substitute for public support.[30] The authors blame, in part, Progressive Era reforms such as primaries and recalls and referendums as weakening the parties' ability to mobilize voters.[30] Neither party has much enthusiasm for mobilizing more voters.[30] Ginsberg and Crenson think that increased litigation, caused by lowering the requirements for class-action lawsuits, benefits special interests who can cause changes beneficial to them without having to energize apathetic voters.[30] Ginsberg sees public opinion polling as a "subtle instrument of power" since it renders opinions "less dangerous, less disruptive, more permissive, and, perhaps, more amenable to governmental control."[34] He sees policy based not on mass opinion but on managing mass opinion, a kind of giant public relations project.[34] Ginsberg has criticized the Washington political climate as "toxic", characterized by a "cycle of attack and counterattack" in which minor indiscretions are used as political weapons.[88]

Generally, about half of eligible voters vote in presidential elections, although the 2008 election, which featured no incumbents, had a higher turnout of 62%. Turnout for primary elections is even lower. While Ginsberg sees voting as a passive and meaningless act which gives the illusion of public control over government, he sometimes criticizes both political parties as having a "resistance" to sincerely working towards increased voter participation.[89] One newspaper reporter, writing about low voter turnout in 1998, suggested there was a "deep-rooted resistance within both parties to expanding the national electorate," and quoted Ginsberg as saying "Politicians who have risen to power in a low-turnout political environment have little to gain and much to fear from an expanded electorate."[89]

Ginsberg argued that citizenship has been undermined by a move to a voluntary military. He believes citizen participation in the military is good since it strengthens patriotism, which means "sacrifice and a willingness to die for one's country."[90] But the switch to a voluntary military eliminates "a powerful patriotic framework" since "instead of a disgruntled army of citizen soldiers, the military seems to be consisted of professional soldiers and private contractors."[90] Ginsberg suggested that the "government learned the lessons of Vietnam and has found ways to insulate the use of military force" from society.[90] Ginsberg criticized American leaders for trying to wage war on terrorism without any sacrifice from citizens: "U.S. leaders have pleaded for what can best be described as defiant normalcy–living, spending and consuming to show that terrorists won't change the American way of life," according to a reporter commenting on Ginsberg's views.[90] Ginsberg suggested American political parties have less and less influence.[91]

Dana D. Nelson

For more information, see: Dana D. Nelson.
Picture of a woman outdoors smiling with red flowers in the background.
Vanderbilt professor Dana D. Nelson argues that all people do, politically, is vote for president every four years, and think that by voting, they're finished their civic duty; she argues that some Americans expect the president to solve all of America's problems.

Vanderbilt University professor Dana D. Nelson is a progressive advocate for citizenship[92] who argued in her 2008 book Bad for Democracy of a tendency by Americans to neglect basic citizenship duties while hoping the president would solve most problems, or what she termed presidentialism.[93][94][95] She saw an American tendency to "look to the sitting president as simultaneously a unifier of the citizenry and a protector from political threats."[96] She called for a "return to grassroots democracy and activism."[97] Nelson explained:

Our habit of putting the president at the center of democracy and asking him to be its superhero works to deskill us for the work of democracy ... The presidency itself has actually come to work against democracy ... We stop waiting for someone else to do it for us. We organize together, using public spaces and the internet. We form blogs, we write letters to the editor, we show up at Congress, we protest, we call, we lobby, we boycott, we buycott, we email our representatives, we find supporters, we get them moving, we grow the movement. We ignore the idea that the right president will do it for us and find every way we can to do it ourselves."[98]

Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic offers a different viewpoint. He agreed the domain of politics in America is shrinking.[45] He described how many city spaces are designed not to meet citizens' needs but to serve corporate ends.[45] He linked the decline of political participation with mass culture, consistent with the analysis by Habermas. Kaplan wrote: "We have become voyeurs and escapists ... it is because people find so little in themselves that they fill their world with celebrities ... The masses avoid important national and international news because much of it is tragic, even as they show an unlimited appetite for the details of Princess Diana's death. This willingness to give up self and responsibility is the sine qua non for tyranny."[45]

While political participation in terms of voting has been declining steadily, Kaplan argued, in contrast to Ginsberg and Crenson, that there are substantial benefits in some respects to non-participation; he wrote "the very indifference of most people allows for a calm and healthy political climate."[45] He elaborated: "Apathy, after all, often means that the political situation is healthy enough to be ignored. The last thing America needs is more voters–particularly badly educated and alienated ones–with a passion for politics."[45] He argues that civic participation, in itself, is not always a sufficient condition to bring good outcomes; he argues against bringing democracy to poor countries torn by ethnic violence and marred by illiteracy since the freedom to debate and vote often results in more fractiousness. He points to Singapore as an authoritarian model which, because it emphasized "relative safety from corruption, from breach of contract, from property expropriation, and from bureaucratic inefficiency", it prospered; Kaplan asks "Doesn't liberation from filth and privation count as a human right?"[99] And in twenty-first century America, with an integrated and robust and growing worldwide economy, there are numerous opportunities to make money and, as a result, have freedom to buy a huge assortment of consumer goods, and not be dependent on citizens or neighbors. If citizens have become consumers, there are positive parts of this, although the risk remains that when people no longer participate in government, there are increased chances for oligarchy or tyranny such as what happened to ancient Athens or the ancient Roman republic.[17]

See also


  1. William Grimes (book reviewer). The Brutal War That Broke a Democratic Superpower, The New York Times: Books, October 11, 2005. Retrieved on 2009-12-04.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Philip Kennicott. When Town Halls Go Viral, There's Sickness in the Air, Washington Post, August 15, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-11-27. “Alexis de Tocqueville once said that "local institutions," such as town meetings, were "to liberty what primary schools are to science."”
  3. Barack Obama. Transcript of Obama's Speech On Race and Politics, National Public Radio, 2008-03-18. Retrieved on 2009-12-18.
  4. Jack Beatty. Oligarchy in America, The Atlantic, March 30, 2005. Retrieved on 2009-11-27. “Imagine popular rule as a continuum, moving from left to right, of fading democracy. Direct democracy—the New England town meeting—sits at the left end. Representative government occupies the middle.”
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 William E. Borah, Senator from Idaho. Growing Menace to Integrity of States: A Government From Washington by Commission, Reduced to Its Last Analysis, Is No Different From a Government Reduced by Satrapies From Rome"–The Dividing Line, The New York Times, 1922-07-02. Retrieved on 2009-11-27. “It was a genuine, unmixed democracy. Once each year every man residing in the limits of the township came, gave full expression to his views and had his vote counted. All affairs of government were here discussed and passed upon, policies were outlined, accepted or rejected–publicity in all public affairs was a reality and not a pretense.”
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Katie Couric. Katie Couric's Notebook: Town Halls, CBS News, August 12, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-11-27. “In the 19th Century, the French writer de Tocqueville came to America to see democracy in action and he witnessed its purest form -- the New England town meeting. Townspeople came together to govern their communities. And de Tocqueville said town meetings teach people how to use democracy, and how to enjoy it.”
  7. Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, Gutenberg Project, 1835. Retrieved on 2009-12-04.
  8. Charles Francis Adams. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, The Online Library of Liberty, 1851. Retrieved on 2009-12-03. “A rotation of offices in the legislative and executive departments has many advocates, and, if practicable, might have many good effects. A law may be made, that no man shall be governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary, treasurer, counsellor, or representative, more than three years at a time, nor be again eligible until after an interval of three years.”
  9. Charles Krauthammer. Ross Perot and the Call-In Presidency, Time Magazine, July 13, 1992. Retrieved on 2009-11-27. “It could be a place where, as in the original New England town hall, people don't just talk but vote ... A New England town hall works because the town is small. Real interaction between people, between governors and governed, is possible.”
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  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 George James. The Venerable History of Incivility, The New York Times, February 16, 1997. Retrieved on 2009-11-27. “When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the mid-1830's, Professor Barber said, he was impressed with the local spirit of liberty and the powerful participation of citizens in local government, whether at a New England town meeting or a gathering of settlers at a frontier fort.”
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  15. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Two Cheers for Solzhenitsyn, The New York Times: Books, November 24, 1991. Retrieved on 2009-11-27. “For Mr. Solzhenitsyn, democracy works well in small units, where the voters know the candidates personally and exercise "self-restraint." He cites Switzerland as his ideal, along with "citizens' assemblies" in the United States (clearly thinking of the New England town meeting).”
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