(A version of this essay was originally published as “What Makes a Good Citizen?” in the Newport Daily News on September 30, 2017, and as “What Citizenship Means Keeps Changing,” on October 8, 2017, by the History News Network-online)
This is the ninth essay in a series devoted to examining citizenship and the American citizen, the rights, duties, and norms of which have become ever more contentious since the divisive Sixties. They have become especially relevant in recent years with the actions of Edward Snowden and Colin Kaepernick, and with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed policies on immigration reform and his accusatory statements against those who do not stand for the national anthem.
As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy, good citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.
President Obama and Citizenship
In his farewell speech on January 11, 2017, President Barack Obama made frequent reference to the ideas of citizen and citizenship in our democracy. Early in his speech he stated: “For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation.” In stressing the domestic as well as international roles of the citizen, he said: “So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.” In calling us to our duty as citizens, he stated: “But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.” He lauded the role of citizen in saying: “Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.” (He emphasized the word by saying it twice amidst applause.) Toward the end of his speech, he stressed his own intentions as a citizen: “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.”
Trump Assumes the Presidency
A few days later, Donald Trump assumed the office of presidency, with the implied role of “first citizen” of the United States. He is unusual in several ways. He is the oldest person to be elected president and comes to the office without ever having served in public office. His methods are unconventional. Rather than using the normal machinery of American democratic government, such as official statements, press conferences, and national televised speeches, he prefers to tweet.
I have demonstrated that rights, through the ages, have been an important component of citizenship and the citizen. President Trump has emphasized a number of “rights” which stem from his campaign promises as means to “Make America Great Again,” his campaign motto. The right to a job: he signed legislation to lift the Obama-era ban on new coal leasing on federal lands. The right to secure borders: He has vowed to build a wall along the 1,915 mile Mexican border. The right to security at home: He has signed legislation banning immigration from seven Muslim countries. An implied right: to prosper without undue government interference. He appointed Scott Pruitt as the EPA director, signed legislation rolling back Obama-era climate initiatives and proclaimed his intent to withdraw the US from the Paris Accord on climate. Implied in these actions he has taken is that he believes it his duty to fulfill as many of his campaign promises as possible.
Citizenship Since World War II
For the first two decades after World War II, American citizens were in general agreement as to the rights, duties, and norms of the good American citizen. Their fundamental rights were clearly enumerated and codified in the Constitution, though subject to various interpretations. With memories of the war still fresh and now facing Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, Americans were generally united in their duty to support their country’s leaders and policies against Soviet communism, the leader of which said that he would “bury” us.
As the Sixties began and many movements for change proliferated, the consensus of the Fifties cracked. Large groups of mostly younger citizens, middle-class citizens, and African-Americans citizens split from the majority of American citizens who believed generally in the legitimacy of the American system, its leaders, and its policies. The rights to assemble and to free speech gained in prominence and allowed these groups to demand change. They asserted that America was not so beautiful; rather it was deeply flawed. The wonders and prosperity of capitalism were illusions and did not bring happiness and contentment. Social injustice was rife. They asserted that the arms race, especially the nuclear arms race, was dangerous and unnecessary. The country’s involvement in the Vietnam War had to end, some of them going so far as to actually visit with and break bread with the enemy. They asserted that the country’s authority figures were capable of great stupidity, could not be trusted, and had to be challenged. Finally, they asserted that a freer, more open lifestyle was better than mindless conformity.
The Single Model of Citizen–Broken
The most significant legacy of the Sixties regarding citizenship and patriotism was the breakdown of the single model of the “good American citizen” of the postwar period. Large portions of the population believed that a good citizen was no longer just a “red, white, and blue citizen”—“my country, right or wrong.” Now one could be accepted as a “good citizen” by being, let us say, a good “white citizen”—someone who is motivated on pure principle to disagree publicly with the country’s political leaders and policies. One could now be a “good black citizen”—one who is prepared to oppose publicly the country’s policies on minorities. One could now be a “good pink citizen”—one who is prepared to oppose publicly the country’s policies on gender issues. Some would even condone a good “red citizen”—one who is prepared to use violence to change American policies or indeed the American system. After all, it was none other than the writer of the Declaration of Independence who said: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The “yellow citizen”—one who protests merely for self-interest—has never gained legitimacy or respect.
President Donald Trump in many ways has shown that he longs for the good old days, apparently the late 1940s and the 1950s. As a baby boomer patriot, I sympathize with this. However, with his comments disparaging the members of the NFL who refuse to stand for the national anthem, clearly he is saying to Make America Great Again, the only good citizen is a “red, white, and blue” one. This is mere sentimentalism.
In the song “American Pie,” Don McLean longed to hear some Buddy Holly music again, but the man at the “sacred store” told him “the music wouldn’t play.” Trump longs for that good old-time patriotism, but America—and the world—have changed.
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