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It's Time for 21st-century Citizenship

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Who is the good citizen and what does the good citizen do? That question is as old as and has been debated since Aristotle's Politics.

President Barack Obama brought the issue of citizenship front and center in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention when he declared, "But we also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations. [...]" President Obama went on to emphasize that "We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights..." The emphasis throughout the president's speech was on shared obligations and responsibilities.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney also addressed the concept of citizenry indirectly in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention when he stated that immigrants came here to become citizens "not just in pursuit of the riches of this world, but for the richness of this life. Freedom, freedom of religion, freedom to speak their mind, freedom to build a life and, yes, freedom to build a business with their own hands. This is the essence of the American experience." The emphasis throughout Romney's speech was on individual advancement and economic opportunities.

Which vision and version of citizenship is correct? The answer should be both. Early in this 21st century, however, where partisanship has been elevated to the new art of war it appears that neither may be. Numerous polls show that the divide between the parties and the perspectives of their loyalists is widening. The extent of that divide was reflected in the substance and tenor of the two conventions.

David Brooks did a good job of capturing this difference in separate columns after each convention. In his Aug. 30 New York Times column following the Republican convention, Brooks observed:

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Following the Democratic convention, in his Sept. 7 New York Times column Brooks wrote "... during the hours between 7 and 10 o'clock when the party was appealing to its own activists, the social issues overshadowed the economic ones. Any time a speaker mentioned the tools of social empowerment -- reproductive rights, same sex marriage, contraceptive freedom -- the crowd rose to its feet... " He continued to note that "Democrats have an indifference to business and an attachment to life style libertarianism that is off putting to American majorities." In spite of this, Brooks concluded that because Clinton and Obama are "able to project balance" while the Republicans have not, the Democrats have an advantage in this year's presidential race.

E.J. Dionne also emphasizes the need for balance in his masterful new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, in which he provides an in-depth and historical examination of the current state of our political condition and how we got to where we are. In the final chapter Dionne argues for a more "consensual balance" from both parties -- especially from the Republican party which he argues has lost its commitment to classic conservatism and communal values due to the stranglehold of the Tea Party.

We agree with Messrs Dionne and Brooks about the importance and necessity for rebalancing. But, we think that our balance will be restored by citizens rather than though the political parties and their leadership.

That's because the majority of the avid advocates (elected officials and party members) in each party have only fear and loathing for those on the other side. They will tolerate no room for common ground or compromise. Civil discourse and dialogue are alien terms to them.

It's been said that the American citizens are either center right or center left depending upon the issue. Today with the movement to the extremes and the hardening of positions there is virtually no center left in either party. There is a centrism vacuum. Nature and politics abhor a vacuum. That vacuum must be filled -- and it will be by what we refer to as the 21st- century citizen.

The 21st-century citizen, as described in our book, Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen's Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage is:

  • Interested: concerned about the common good and the American community as opposed to purely pecuniary or personal concerns
  • Issues-oriented: focused on areas of civic and social concern as opposed to rigid ideologies
  • Informed: dedicated to gathering and analyzing objective data as the basis for civic and social engagement
  • Independent: committed to exercising personal judgment as opposed to taking totally partisan positions
  • Involved: engaged actively in addressing those issues that are of paramount concern to our citizens, communities and the nation

The 21st-century citizen is a good citizen. In his Politics, Aristotle stated, "The conclusion to which we are thus led is that excellence of the citizen must be excellence relative to the constitution."

As we said in our first Huffington Post blog on July 22, 2010, "21st century citizens understand that the constitution is the starting line and not the finish line. They are problem solvers not blame placers. They are future-focused and not fault focused. They are proactive rather than reactive."

Citizenship like patriotism is not a partisan concept. The United States constitution and our democracy belong to the people and not a party. The nation's greatness and genius come from the many and not the few.

Senator Bill Bradley recognizes and celebrates this at the end of his new book, We Can All Do Better when he writes, "Wisdom is where you find it... Wisdom acts for the long term. ...It tells us that our great country needs to be revived and that its citizenry deep down wants to reclaim American democracy from the stranglehold of money and ideology. And it has faith in those citizens to succeed in that task."

We have faith in those citizens, too. And, that is why, we say now more than ever, it is time for 21st-century citizenship that promotes both individual striving and shared responsibility.

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