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The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life Paperback – September 1, 1999
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"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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
(2) "politics of parties", which was characteristic of what he terms a "mass democracy" with parties mobilizing voters to essentially distribute offices in a system of patronage. Bribery was common. Party loyalty was seen as a virtue.
(3) "politics of information" from the Progressive Era to perhaps the middle of the 20th century, in which the "informed voter" ideal became prominent. Party loyalty was de-emphasized. Political parties lost power when civil service reforms undermined patronage jobs and when rules prohibiting electioneering near voting booths came into effect. This era was characterized as a rule by "everyone and no one" which emphasized political education, impersonal rules, and rational decision-making. Citizens were supposed to glean information from numerous sources such as newspapers and later television. Interest groups became more powerful, but politics was generally at the periphery of peoples lives, with concerns like food, sex, family, play and shelter being primary considerations.
(4) citizens as monitors, from the mid-1960s to the present in which "rights-bearing citizens" became important. Interest groups could lobby government directly. The rights movement widened the reach of citizenship, which was increasingly seen as something guaranteed by the Federal government, making the central government more powerful. The so-called "monitorial citizen" would serve as a defensive watchdog engaged in a continual sort of political surveillance. In addition, he noted that many of the earlier focuses of peoples lives (food, sex etc) had become politicized. And he argues that citizenship is moving into a new uncertain realm which will pose new challenges and opportunities.
If the strength of Schudson's analysis is his description of what American civic life was like, then its weakness is the absence of what could have been. Schudson seems happy now as a citizen, dutifully describing in the initial section how his day spent as a poll-worker reflected democracy in action, and contrasting this experience with similar events from past eras. Schudson's view is that of the status quo. People vote today, sometimes, but even if only half vote, well, people did not vote much in earlier periods either (participation levels varied). He peers back into America's past, and sees pluses and minuses, virtue and corruption, in each era. For example, he notes that writers such as Tocqueville, Rousseau, Godwin, Lippmann worried about problems stemming from a lack of citizenship, but then he looks around today and shrugs, well, it's not so bad, therefore, stop fretting.
What is absent is an analytical perspective that might emerge from a wider study of citizenship throughout time, including a study of politics and how political institutions interrelate with business and corporate ones. A more thoughtful examination of numerous cause-and-effect variables would have been stronger.
Scholars agree that the meaning of "citizenship" depends on its context, with considerable variation, and that it is highly intertwined with other hard-to-define institutions such as the structure of government or what is public versus what is private. Still, there is consensus for splitting citizenship into two rival camps: (1) liberal citizenship (state exists to help citizens, protects rights) versus (2) civic republican citizenship (active participation, holding office, voting, military service.) If liberal citizenship emphasizes passive citizenship, civic republican citizenship honors active citizenship. It is a rough generalization obviously. Still, if this duality is correct, then Schudson is firmly in the liberal citizenship camp, with little to suggest that he has thought seriously about the other camp, and his orientation tends to color his analysis. He is not alone; thinkers such as Robert D. Kaplan suggest there may be substantial benefits for non-participation.
Schudson's analysis is an example of in-the-box thinking which lacks a critical interdisciplinary perspective. There is a past-oriented America-is-fine-and-dandy sensibility which suggests that even if some aspects of civic life are a bit messy and sometimes corrupt, as he admits, things will work themselves out. Missing from his analysis are perspectives such as the Roman and Greek senses of citizenship, a look at political structures, and economic forces and the interplay of institutions. It is an almost American-only perspective which seems rather one-dimensional and static, not dynamic, but still makes some valid points.
In my view, America began with a unique fresh-start opportunity with few serious challenges. Two large oceans kept rival powers at arm's length. There were no serious American rivals. The countryside had excellent river systems with deep-water ports and excellent farmland. Pre-existing nations in Europe had other European powers to contend with, while older civilizations were atrophying, and other areas of the world were barely beginning to wake up commercially. America had a lucky head start in a race among nations because of fortuitous circumstances. And its self-chosen constitutional arrangement was well-suited to adapt to this free-for-the-taking environment for business and commercial growth while preventing tyranny. The Framers built a system which could practically run on autopilot without much citizen participation, including a nifty system to thwart the overly ambitious. Accordingly, the word "citizen" was not even mentioned in the Constitution until the mid-19th century.
During these formative years, beginning about 1700, humanity "took off" in terms of knowledge and power and population, according to professor David Christian of Macquarie University in Australia in his course "Big History". Essentially, humans learned how to be human, stopped exploiting each other and started harnessing natural power. Slavery ceased, mostly. Economies grew exponentially. Massive technological innovation, new power sources, communications technology, computers and more -- these major changes propelled humans into a much more empowered existence.
These powerful positive changes, in my view, obscured the real and sorry decline in citizenship and permitted Americans to degenerate into apolitical beings. While Schudson might argue that Americans have always been apolitical throughout the nation's history, I see a more consistent general long-term decline in civic participation, and a change in the meaning of "citizenship" from being people who participate in politics to being merely a legal marker connoting membership in America. Throughout two centuries, Americans could avoid town meetings, and the system could permit mediocre government, corruption, and a short-sighted rather directionless foreign policy. It was not all bad; America prospered mightily; and there is much to be said for the benefits of wealth.
But the situation today has changed considerably. America has serious commercial rivals. Technology has reduced distance such that a transcontinental missile can strike a city within an hour after being fired, suggesting that a mediocre foreign policy (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Middle East, supporting dictators, etc) can lead to serious trouble. A slew of problems has resulted from having a non-participatory citizenry -- worrisome growth in lobbying; inability of government to focus on long term problems such as social security reform or tax reform or global warming; inequality; self-selected political candidates controlled by powerful interest groups who lose sight of the common good; haphazard foreign policy; -- these problems suggest that the model of "passive citizenship" a la Schudson will no longer work. America's disconnect between its supposed "citizens" and lawmakers is a serious shortcoming.
Still, this book is what it is -- an excellent description of the history of American civic life -- and adds to the collective knowledge of politics. It will be of interest to history students. Recommended.
"The Second Constitution of the United States"
(free online: google title plus my name)
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.