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The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life Paperback – September 1, 1999

4 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"What are the characteristics and practices that mark a good citizen in the United States?" asks author Michael Schudson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. He's not entirely sure--this is not a book of ready conclusions--but he performs a helpful service in describing the evolution of voting as both an idea and practice in American history. During the colonial period, for example, white male property owners (nobody else had the vote) casually reaffirmed a strict social hierarchy. In the 19th century, political parties dominated public life and energized local communities. In the 20th century, the Progressive Era notion of "informed voters" took root and essentially privatized citizenship. Schudson generally likes the way in which American citizenship has evolved, especially toward more openness, but he's decidedly ambivalent about where it might be headed--a regime of rights and entitlements in which the personal is inevitably political. --John J. Miller --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The conventional wisdom that American civic health is in dangerous decline is the target of Shudson's sweeping history of American political life from colonial times to the present. The author, professor of sociology at the UC-San Diego and author of Discovering the News, argues that the current concentration on individual rights is not destroying the fabric of community values, and he explodes many myths that are part of the nostalgia for simpler times. An expert on the media, he also provides a cogent analysis of the role of the press in American politics; e.g., he contends that TV's sound bites taken from political speeches allow more time for the reporter to explain what is really going on. In the same spirit of reexamination, he recounts how the much-touted New England town meeting often suffered from low turnout. He reminds us that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in secret session; that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were largely rewritten for publication; and that the moment of highest voter turnout at the turn of the century was also a time of widespread political corruption, including money for votes. Having given the back of his hand to the popular conception of a country once ruled by a well-informed citizenry, the author argues that personal involvement in the myriad opportunities for local individual contributions?whether monitoring the environment or standing up against discrimination?are perhaps the best way to participate in civic life. We are not out of the woods, the author reminds us, but the future of the country is not as bleak as some would argue. (Sept.) FYI: This Martin Kessler book was supervised after Kessler's death by Bruce Nichols.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 402 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674356403
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674356405
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,550,510 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Thomas W. Sulcer on January 28, 2012
Format: Paperback
Schudson's description of civic life in America is enlightening in that it provides new perspectives on the elusive phenomenon of citizenship. He argues that there never was a time in American history when there was a strong sense of what citizenship was supposed to be. He makes a perhaps-too-quick case that active participation in New England town hall meetings, early in the pre-Revolutionary War days, was a myth, although he has fairly solid data that participation levels had not been as high as has been generally thought. He advises us not to judge citizenship in one era by the standards of another -- that is, we should not judge our own apolitical times as being somehow a falloff from an earlier era of participatory democracy. Rather, each era of American politics, according to Schudson, should be understood on its own terms and context, with pluses and minuses for each, and this seems to be a reasonable viewpoint.

Schudson has done considerable research about what actually happened in American civic life, and therein lies the strength of this book: a description of politics in action, of events and attitudes, supported with considerable research. He brackets off periods in American civic life into four categories:

(1) "politics of assent", from roughly 1650 to perhaps 1820, in which voting was essentially a reaffirmation of an existing hierarchy reflecting a deferential respect towards those upper-class property-owning gentlemanly white males who ran things. Few people voted. Town meetings were occasional and often sparsely attended. Schudson contended that the Framers were hostile to political parties, open debate, soliciting citizens' votes, even public education.
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Format: Paperback
Professor Schudson brings tremendous insight to the current debate about civil society. He demonstrates that citizenship has evolved beyond traditional practices, e.g., voting, to a larger sphere of rights-consciousness in which the courtroom is a much at the center of our citizenship as the voting booth.
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Format: Paperback
"The Good Citizen" recounts 300 years of the American public's interraction with government. Schudson's focus is not on how a citizen ought to act, or how American thinkers have conceptualized the individual citizien over time, but rather on how the public as a whole steadily evolved from a passive, rubber-stamping mass into a semi-active rights asserting band of identifiable interest groups. Schudson's past expertise centers on media and advertising, so there is little surprise that newspapers play an outsized role in the early chapters of this book.

This was not the intellectual history I was expecting. Only once, on page 185, did I encounter the "model citizen." A single sentence was given to the topic. In short, this book is only marginally about citizenship, and much more a generalized introduction to American political participation.
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