Voter turnout is in steep decline. Public policy debates grow ever-more uncivil. Even mainstays of civic life like the PTA struggle to maintain members. So is good citizenship dead?Michael Schudson, a professor of sociology at the University of California in San Diego, doesn't think so. In The Good Citizen, a history of three centuries of American civic life, Schudson argues essentially that practices of citizenship have changed and evolved as the American political system has changed and evolved.
According to Schudson, we have passed through three distinct eras of civic life and have now entered a fourth. Each era has formulated its own model of citizenship, with its own unique virtues and shortcomings. All of these past models continue to influence our thinking and behavior. The cherished ideal of the informed citizen, for example, is a still-powerful vestige of the progressive era of the last century.
But, as Schudson convincingly points out, none of these earlier models is adequate for our present era, a period defined by a profound revolution in rights, with politics permeating virtually every aspect of life. So Schudson proposes a model he calls the monitorial citizen. Such citizens, he says, are like parents watching their children at the community pool, seemingly inactive but poised for action if action is required. Citizenship of this sort may be for many people much less intense than in the era of parties, but citizenship is now a year-round, day-long activity, as it was only rarely in the past. This is a fascinating, if somewhat academic, argument. It certainly merits wider thought and discussion. But readers can strongly disagree with Schudson's analysis or simply ignore it and still find The Good Citizen an interesting read.
Like all good histories, The Good Citizen forcefully reminds us that what seems chiseled in stone today was often a matter of contentious debate in an earlier time. For example, strong political parties are seen today as one of America's chief contributions to the democratic process; but parties and factions were loathed and feared by the Founding Fathers. We often point to the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a high point in our political discourse; but as Schudson slyly points out, these debates had no effect on the election (since U.S. Senators were selected by state legislators at the time).
Schudson weaves these and other equally interesting observations together to make another important point: there has never been a Golden Age of good citizenship before which our own age pales. As Schudson says, citizenship has not disappeared. It has not even declined. It has, inevitably, changed. That's good news.
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to BookPage.