Citizenship, Democracy and the Changing World Order

A Review Essay by Scott London

The forecast for democracy is anything but certain as we look to the 21st century. We're faced with a new set of democratic challenges perhaps far greater than those of our recent past. The task is no longer to "make the world safe for democracy," as Woodrow Wilson proclaimed almost a century ago, but rather to safeguard our essential democratic values. This shift is reflected in much of the current literature which, upon review, brings to mind Rousseau's saying that "liberty is a food easy to eat, but difficult to digest."

In the wake of the political euphoria of the late 1980s, we're confronted with enormous social and political unrest. Countries in the former Soviet world, in Latin America, in the Middle East, and elsewhere, struggle to redefine themselves in the name of democracy, while nations in the Western world contend with forces of internal fractionalism, on the one hand, and the market pressures toward greater internationalization on the other.

Much of the current literature suggests that contemporary democratic theory, taken as a whole, suffers from troublesome and anachronistic definitions of basic concepts like 'public, 'equality, 'diversity,' 'participation,' 'private interest' and, perhaps especially, 'citizenship.'

It remains to be seen whether the fabric of democracy is strong enough to withstand these contradictory forces. As Benjamin Barber points out in Harper's Magazine, "just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures — both bleak, neither democratic." He describes the two principal political forces of our age — tribalism and globalism — as opposite and antithetical in every way but one: they may both be threatening to democracy. He characterizes the forces of retribalization — the "threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, [and] tribe against tribe" — as the Jihad principle; while the pressures of homogenization — "the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food — MTV, Macintosh, and McDonalds" — constitute what he calls the McWorld principle. These forces neither reflect nor respect democracy, Barber writes. McWorld promises peace, prosperity, unity, and stability, but at the cost of independence, community and identity. It requires neither citizenship nor participation. Jihad, on the other hand, delivers a vibrant local identity and a sense of community, but guarantees a parochialism predicated on difference.

These rival forces are at work in the United States as well. The mood of the times is captured in a recent Wall Street Journal headline: "National Paradox: even as American ideals triumph, Americans are awash in self-doubt and pessimism." The article describes how the fall of the Berlin Wall, the opening of Disney Land abroad, McDonalds' conquest of Beijing and Moscow — not to mention the collapse of an entire "evil" empire — have been met not with a festive celebration of a new world in the making, but with a pervasive angst about our own social and economic future.

In The Good Society, Robert Bellah and his colleagues offer some clues to our predicament. "Perhaps the reason is that in spite of our bravado, America is far less self-confident at the end of the cold war than it was at its beginning," they write. In a chapter of the book entitled "America in the World," they trace the evolution of America's role in the world from the end of the second World War to the present, illustrating how the impulses to create a morally superior world order after the war have produced a set of contradictory policies that are no longer useful in the post-cold war age. Ironically, the greatest competition in the world marketplace comes from countries such as Japan which have received U.S. economic aid. It's beginning to dawn on us that it may have been unrealistic to presume the world would consent to American interests. Together with economic aid, the United States has exported the gospel of individualism and privatization while undermining the establishment of an international public sphere. The ultimate historical irony is that in this new global order the United States is faced with either sacrificing its own immediate interests or the democratic values it has always sought to uphold.

This apparent contradiction at work in American foreign policy is addressed more theoretically in other parts of The Good Society, as well as in a number of recent articles that reassess the "economic" model of our national politics, and "the patterned ways Americans have developed for living together." The critique of American individualism that constituted Bellah et al.'s 1985 book Habits of the Heart is taken one step further in The Good Society which probes the complex relationship between individuals and their institutions in a democracy. Bellah and his colleagues contend that the nature of our democratic institutions — from church to classroom to corporation to Congress — reinforce and even foster civic passivity and cynicism.

At least some of our citizens have come to see that the present organization of our economic life, including the corporation, threatens not only our democratic government, because of its inordinate political influence, but also our national character and form of life, because of its propagation of the idea of wealth as merely the accumulation of consumer goods.

Bellah and his colleagues argue that economic factors have become such a dominating feature of latter-day democracies that some form of institutional response is called for to revitalize our democratic process. It requires a shift from the Lockean sense of rugged individual autonomy to the more fulfilling sense of social responsibility espoused by Lippmann, Dewey, and Niebuhr, the authors suggest. Democracy is an "ongoing moral quest" and the egalitarian mission of American democracy should focus on a society organized through public dialogue and concerned with local responsibility.

These conclusions are echoed by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb in his book The Cynical Society. Democracy's most pressing problem in the post-cold war era, he says, is that of cynicism. Cynicism has overwhelmed American politics, journalism, and social science, to the extent that "we confuse it with democratic deliberation and political wisdom." Like Bellah et al., Goldfarb is concerned that a society homogenized by consumerism, glossy media visuals, bumper-sticker politics, and adversarial party ideologies, loses its capacity for informed judgment and deliberative opinion.

Television, our major form of society-wide communication, is saturated with lies and manipulations. Our political leaders are more concerned with reelection than political accomplishment. Social justice, demanded in the civil-rights era, and promised in Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," is more distant than ever. For many, proclamations of the American Dream accomplished seem simply to cover up a wide range of American nightmares. And pieties about the values of democracy appear quite empty. For those who look closely and critically at the American way of life, there is much about which to be cynical.

Cynicism, Goldfarb suggests, is the legitimate heir of American individualism. Interdependence is a difficult concept for Americans, for while it is one of the core virtues of democratic life it is scarcely honored in the practice of contemporary politics. Overcoming cynicism will require a restructuring of our society from a "mass" culture of competing interests to a more communal one where the voices of individual citizens are respected and valued, he writes.

A similar, if less elaborate, argument is set forth by Harvard public policy professor Steven Kelman. In an article for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, he maintains that the erosion of public spirit in the United States is a product of an overly competitive and adversarial institutional model. Our political system is designed to foster self-interest rather than cooperation and as a result the discursive and deliberative integrity of public policy has been all but lost. He recommends creating legislative and administrative forums where representatives of all perspectives can engage in regular discussions: "in a collective choice process, public spirited individual participants produce good public policy by deliberating — talking with each other, listening to each other's arguments, and being willing to learn and change their minds based on such dialogue."

The arguments of Kelman, Goldfarb, and Bellah et al. echo some of the concerns at the heart of Jurgen Habermas's philosophy of the public realm. In his seminal 1962 work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas argued that the competitive pressures of a free market economy eventually require state intervention and regulation, which in turn produces increased competition and still more regulation. Finally the state becomes a major player in the economic arena and is faced with what he called a "legitimation crisis" — a set of normative contradictions — such as the conflict between serving special interests and advancing the common good. A vibrant public sphere is the only safeguard against such a crisis, Habermas insisted. Some form of public discourse about common affairs (dialogue that arises naturally among citizens, rather than the sort orchestrated by the state), as well as an arena in which it can happen, was therefore necessary, he said.

Critics of Habermas' theory point out that his concept of the public sphere is highly abstract, and even nostalgic. He patterned his theory on the political life of France, England, and Germany in the seventeenth through mid-twentieth centuries when the age-old divisions between high-culture and popular society began to fall away. The standards of political discourse were no longer dictated exclusively by the status of the arguers (white, male aristocrats) but rather by the merits of the arguments themselves. The "ubiquity of the argument" thus became the norm of a new public discourse which enhanced both the quality and the quantity of public debate. According to Habermas, the public sphere, conceived in this way, served as a vehicle for social cohesion and a counterweight to the rival forces of state and market.

Yet the model of 19th century bourgeois Europe is hardly adequate for the requirements of modern democratic theory, his critics suggest. In Habermas and the Public Sphere, an anthology of essays inspired by Habermas' theories, several of the contributors admit to owing the German philosopher a great debt of gratitude, but the overall consensus seems to be that his theories need to be expanded and elaborated to fit the needs of modern critical theory. When you look at the range of disciplines and cultural viewpoints represented in these essays, it becomes immediately apparent just how influential Habermas' theories have been to modern political thought. From critical theory, gender and media studies to history, political theory and ethics, this anthology reflects a wide variety of academic disciplines and an overall theoretical approach less preoccupied with rational and universal principles, and more intent on finding common ground between different academic and ideological camps. Included in this work are essays by Harry Boyte, Nancy Fraser, Michael Schudson, Seyla Benhabib, Craig Calhoun, Nicholas Garnham and others.

Much of the current literature indicates that contemporary democratic theory, taken as a whole, suffers from troublesome and anachronistic definitions of such basic concepts as "public," "equality," "diversity," "participation," "private interest," and, above all, "citizenship." While postmodernists have been ardent proponents of this claim for some time, it is now being echoed from more traditional quarters.

Peter Riesenberg's Citizenship in the Western Tradition is a case in point. The book examines the evolution of one of democracy's most fundamental concepts: citizenship. He limits his study to the 2000-year period "from Plato to Rousseau" (as the subtitle states), which is a pity because the subject begins to come alive in earnest only after the French and American revolutions. Nonetheless, it is clear that over the course of the centuries the concept of citizenship has grown and evolved in tune with the times. From the Greek polis and republican Rome to Renaissance Europe and pre-revolutionary France, citizenship evolved from an honor bestowed upon prominent members of Athenian society to a complex moral code involving both privileges and obligations. Citizenship, once a mere legal formality, has become a vital source of individual and communal identity. Riesenberg does point out, however, that in the modern era (the last two centuries), the concept of citizenship has changed dramatically. Or, to put it more accurately, citizens have changed, while our notions of "citizenship" have yet to reflect those changes (just as latter-day democracies have changed, while democratic theory — Habermas et al. — still remains tied to the models of the past). As Riesenberg writes, "over the past two centuries most men in the Western world have swapped gun and plow for pen, pencil, and personal computer; it is now very difficult to win republican virtue as some kind of rural or Alpine hero," as the early democratic thinkers would have it.

A recent collection of essays that tries to remedy this theoretical quandary is Dimensions of Radical Democracy, edited by French scholar Chantal Mouffe. This anthology consolidates the efforts of a formidable array of international scholars to define citizenship in a pluralist democracy. Bringing together critics of liberalism and Marxism, as well as postmodernists and feminist thinkers, the central theme of the essays is the search for a conception of citizenship that entails neither the atomization nor the homogenization of citizens. The central question here is: How can pluralism be defended without undermining the cohesive political community? For democratic theorists (particularly those who tend toward the Left), this is obviously the question of the day.

What emerges from these essays is a vision of modern democracy far more nuanced and subtle than the rationalistic and universalistic conceptions of Habermas and his school, and far more cautious and optimistic than the postmodern relativism of Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard. Citizenship in a radical (as opposed to rational) democracy must embrace both individualism and communitarianism, the contributors argue. The tension that exists between these contradictory forces is, according to Chantal Mouffe, the essence of a vibrant democracy. "There is no hope of a final reconciliation," she states, and, bringing to mind Rousseau's saying that true democracy has never existed and never will, she concludes that "radical democracy also means the radical impossibility of a fully achieved democracy." The contributors to this volume include Michael Walzer ("The Civil Society Argument"), Louise Marcil-Lacoste ("The Paradoxes of Pluralism"), and Maurizio Passerin d'Entreves ("Hannah Arendt and the Idea of Citizenship")

After such a journey through the world of high theory it is comforting to learn that some practical work is also being done in the field. An interesting example is the trans-Atlantic collaboration of Pamela Conover, Ivor Crewe and Donald Searing on empirical conceptions of citizenship documented in the Journal of Politics. This study examined citizens' conceptions of rights, duties and civic identities in the United States and Great Britain. Taking the theoretical controversies between liberals and communitarians as a point of reference, they set out to explore how citizens in focus groups understood the concept of citizenship. They discovered that citizens do not speak in polarized terms that correspond with the academic debate, but rather in ways that combine elements of both liberalism and communitarianism. Moreover, they found significant differences in the ways American and British citizens talk about citizenship. While the British welfare state reflects and strengthens a sense of communal citizenship, the authors noted, the political culture in the United States stresses competition and individualism. Consequently, Americans viewed this aspect of citizenship as an obligation that restricts their freedom, and the British viewed it more as a social responsibility. For Americans, the concept of social rights offends the liberal spirit by eroding individualism and the work ethic. Curiously, British identity seems to be rooted in a sense of shared heritage that is at odds with individuality. As a result, citizenship in Britain often implies a submersion of individual identity in favor of a collective one. Unlike their British counterparts, however, Americans' national identity is distinct from their identity as citizens. Modern liberal democracies are neither "societies of strangers nor communities of friends," according to the authors, and citizenship therefore reflects a combination of liberal and communitarian ideals.

"Democracy, if it lives at all, lives in the everyday practice of citizenship," as David Mathews has said. While we often take the concept for granted in the West, evolving democracies throughout the world are being challenged to forge new civic codes, new social contracts, and, above all, new democratic mindsets.

In Russia it's a slow and painstaking process, according to Vitaly Zhurkin, director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In an interview he told me that active citizenship is an exceedingly difficult concept for the ordinary Russian. The late Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili used to say, "our man now is not a citizen. He does not have the muscles to live in a society," and Zhurkin agreed. "The attitude of a person who expects society to do everything for him is very strong," he observed. The typical Russian exercises his democratic rights, but "in the back of his mind he is blaming society because the window is broken in his house and nobody repairs it," Zhurkin said. This mindset is a legacy of the Soviet system; "we were educated to think of society as the State — which presented itself as a society but actually consumed it."

When the distinction between state and society becomes blurred, as Habermas has illustrated very poignantly, the concept of citizenship breaks down. "It will take a long time to reeducate ourselves," Zhurkin continued, but "even if the liberation of the human mind develops slowly, I think it will happen."

Works Cited in This Essay:
  • Benjamin Barber. "Jihad Vs. McWorld." Atlantic Monthly, March 1992
  • Robert Bellah et al. The Good Society. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
  • Craig Calhoun, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. (MIT Press, 1992)
  • Pamela Conover et al. "The Nature of Citizenship in the United States and Great Britain." Journal of Politics, August 1991.
  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb. The Cynical Society. (University of Chicago Press, 1991)
  • Steven Kelman. "Adversary and Cooperationist Institutions for Conflict Resolution in Public Policymaking." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 1992.
  • Chantal Mouffe, ed. Dimensions of Radical Democracy. (New York: Verso, 1992.)
  • Peter Riesenberg. Citizenship in the Western Tradition. (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1992.)