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Do Americans still believe in their democracy?

A political theorist on the withering of American citizenship.

Fans hold US flags during the national anthem before the start of the 2020 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena on January 1, 2020.
John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s a crisis of citizenship in America.

Most people don’t see many opportunities to participate meaningfully in our political process, and many others feel alienated from it altogether. That’s a dangerous place for any democracy to be.

One of the biggest challenges facing American politics is polarization. The public is increasingly split along partisan lines, and the very idea of “Americanness” — who counts as an American and who doesn’t — seems hopelessly muddled. But it’s precisely because we’re so divided that now is a great time to ask what citizenship means and how we might revive it.

Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University who has been thinking about these issues for a long time. Last month, she wrote a feature essay in the Atlantic with a big question at the center: How can Americans become citizens again?

The implication is that we stopped being citizens at some point, or simply lost faith in our institutions.

According to Allen, the informal system of norms and rules that governs our political process has collapsed as the environment has become more fragmented and extreme. At the same time, “the hollowing-out of our political institutions has left society disunited, disorganized, and raw.” So not only is the public increasingly divided, most people see no pathway to change.

I spoke to Allen about how we got here, what democratic citizenship actually means, and what it will take to bridge the chasm at the center of our politics. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What does it mean to be a citizen of a democracy?

Danielle Allen

That’s a big question, but I’d say that it means an opportunity to be empowered and to become a co-author of our collective way of life. Typically, we exercise that opportunity for empowerment through participation in political institutions. But we also get to exercise that opportunity just by contributing to shaping our shared culture.

Sean Illing

So it’s active participation, in your mind, that separates democratic citizenship from citizenship in a non-democracy?

Danielle Allen

Yeah, I think that’s right. The point of being a democratic citizen is that you are part of the sovereign, you are part of the governing body. And the only way to actually fulfill that role is through participation. That may come in the form of voting or running for office, but it might also mean working with neighbors to shape and influence your local community.

Sean Illing

You say that “Americans have to become citizens again.” When did we stop being citizens?

Danielle Allen

I think it’s been eroding for the last half-century or so. And I think the biggest indicator that it’s eroded is how little respect we have for Congress. Congress has an approval rating that hovers around 20 percent. It hit a low of about 9 percent in 2013, I believe. And our disrespect for Congress is disrespect for ourselves, because the national legislature is an extension of our own democratic power. It’s the form our power takes. So if we disrespect that body, we disrespect our own democratic empowerment.

Newly elected members of the House of Representatives pose for an official class photo outside the Capitol in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2018.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sean Illing

There are lots of reasons why we landed in this place. In your essay, you focus on the 1970s as a crucial period in which things started to go downhill. What happened?

Danielle Allen

There are a whole lot of things that changed, but that’s really a period when the power moved away from Congress. And my focus is on the economic part of the story. That was a point in time where economic policy shifted from a focus on fiscal policy, the question of what budgets Congress sets, to a question of monetary policy, where you have this independent entity, the Federal Reserve, which isn’t elected and isn’t really accountable to voters, setting the economic direction for the country.

Suddenly, the entirety of our economy is being managed by this independent body, and that’s a massive reduction of power for Congress and therefore a reduction of the public’s ability to control their economic fate. And all of this coincides with the increasing privatization of public life and with lots of social transformations that generate culture wars over sex and abortion and gay rights and drugs and so on. And that in turn leads to more partisanship and more hatred for fellow citizens, and this undercuts the connections that support a functioning democracy.

Sean Illing

Let’s step back a bit and then we’ll circle back to this part of the story. The American founders had this idea of township democracy, where citizens shared a physical space and politics was mostly about local issues. Is their idea of citizenship even conceivable in the world we now inhabit? Do we need to completely rethink the concept of citizenship?

Danielle Allen

We need to do a lot of rethinking. The founders got a lot wrong and a lot right. We can’t straightforwardly transplant their idea of citizenship into our own circumstances. Their concept of citizenship depended on an elite having stewardship over the entire community, and we’ve rightly blown that idea to bits. We’re now committed to a more inclusive picture of democracy, where everybody gets to participate in power — or at least that’s the idea.

But I don’t think we can abandon the idea that local citizenship matters. We need avenues of participation and pathways to empowerment at all levels of our society. And in particular, what really matters is that we find ways of making sure that structures of governance align with the communities who are affected. People, in other words, have to be involved in decisions that will directly impact their lives and their communities.

Sean Illing

There’s also the reality that the founders were building a republic by and for white property-owning males. There was a convergence of interests that doesn’t exist in today’s multiethnic society, and so the idea of “unity,” if not quite impossible, feels quixotic. At the same time, there are now more groups competing for political and cultural power, and that creates real, insoluble conflict.

Is there a vision of citizenship that can transcend these differences?

Danielle Allen

That’s the key question. But I wouldn’t say that we don’t have a convergence of interests in the contemporary world, although that convergence may be pretty narrow. I think everyone has an interest in empowerment. Everyone should believe that their own sense of fulfillment or completion requires that they not be buffeted by other people’s decisions, that they have some part in shaping the world in which they live. And the only vehicle for achieving that is democracy.

We will never all agree about what to do or what’s right and what’s wrong, and we shouldn’t. But democracy is about this fundamental commitment to the right of empowerment and self-government. This is a shared bedrock interest, and it’s as nonnegotiable as air or water or any other basic necessity of life.

My hope is that we can inspire this feeling of shared interest in more people.

Sean Illing

I guess the question is, how do we do that? How do we get people to buy into that vision?

Danielle Allen

Well, there isn’t one answer to that question. One specific area, which is obviously less fraught than issues around religion or race or sexuality, is the space of civic education. We’ve failed ourselves miserably by not providing any kind of civic education in schools for a generation.

And one reason for this is polarization. We can’t agree on how to tell the American story. Is it a story of triumph and invention and progress? Or is it a story of enslavement and genocide? The National Governors Association couldn’t agree on common standards for social studies because of this disagreement, so it just gets pushed aside.

I’m part of a coalition of people working on trying to rebuild civics education, where our first principle is that a diversity of views on this is fine. We have to be able to be honest about our history and its negative parts, and at the same time appreciative of its good parts without letting the honesty pull us into cynicism. I think there’s a way to find enough common ground here.

And to be clear, I’m not saying this is going to fix everything. It’s not. But it’s part of the picture, and it’s the kind of thing we have to do better if we want to fix these deep problems that took decades to build and will take decades to overcome.

New US citizens recite the the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at Rockefeller Center in New York City on September 17, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sean Illing

My worry is that citizenship — real citizenship — is virtually impossible in a sprawling consumerist society like ours. Our lives are mediated by screens, we rarely interact with people in our own communities, our media environment is designed to stupefy and divide — how do we construct a citizenry in the face of all this?

Danielle Allen

It’s definitely challenging, I’ll give you that. But let’s step back a little. What does it take to have a conception of citizenship that we might share? What does it take to realize it? At the end of the day, I come back to the shared interest in empowerment through participation, in having routes of participation that are actually workable and situated in a culture that actually supports those opportunities.

Sean Illing

This leads up back to where we started, which is the feeling people have of not being in control of their own lives or economic future. And as you said, a lot of this started in the 1970s with the increasing privatization of public life. Since then, we’ve gradually given ourselves over to this neoliberal idea that the state only exists in order to secure the free market.

How in the world do we deal with this?

Danielle Allen

We have to flip ourselves from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle. We have to reform our institutions so they’re actually worth participating in, at the same time that we rebuild a civil society and a culture that supports participation. But there are some concrete steps I think we have to take to level the playing field.

For one, we have to increase the size of the House and re-weight the balance between populous states and less populous states. We have to bring greater equality to the vote of somebody in California versus the vote of somebody in Wyoming. There’s an enormous disparity right now that’s plainly anti-democratic.

I think we need term limits for Supreme Court justices so that we can reduce the politicization of the Court, reduce the notion that every presidential election is an existential struggle. Ranked-choice voting is another institutional reform that I think would help a ton. The anti-democratic structures built into our system are increasing tensions in the country and undermining their own legitimacy.

On the culture side, and there’s just no easy way to do this, but we have to inspire a love of democracy. Ultimately, nothing matters if people don’t believe in democracy, if they’re not invested in it. And we have inspiring people in our history who gave us that love. Martin Luther King gave a lot of people that love. Barack Obama gave a lot of people that love. Ronald Reagan gave a lot of people that love.

Sean Illing

What would you say is the closing message of your essay?

Danielle Allen

The message I want people to take away is that democracy is worth loving. And when you have a broken democracy, it’s worth fixing.

Sean Illing

And what’s the alternative if we can’t inspire that love?

Danielle Allen

There is no alternative. If we lose democracy, then we’ve lost something great, something of transcendent human value, and no one should want that. So we’d better get about fixing it.

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