Politics & Policy

Why Citizenship Matters

The weaker the commitment to citizenship, the worse the prospects for liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy starts here.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America

Western democracies aren't working well. Liberal democratic norms are under strain in the U.S. and much of Europe. In other parts of the world, authoritarian governments grow confident and ambitious. As citizens of democratic countries, we can all agree: Restoring the vitality of our systems of government is essential.

One crucial yet neglected part of this task is to understand what we mean by that phrase, "As citizens."

Like much else in Western politics, notions of citizenship have polarized. The space between the poles isn't ideological in the old left-right sense. (At the moment, that kind of ideology seems largely beside the point.) It's based instead on class, culture and geography. Away from the cities, populists care about citizenship to a fault, on a spectrum that runs, at the extreme, to hardline nativism and ethnic bigotry. The urban gentry cares about it hardly at all, to the point, in the U.S., of supporting "sanctuary cities" and frowning on the very term, "illegal immigrant."

The subject preoccupies me at the moment, because I'm applying for U.S. citizenship. Telling this to friends and neighbors, I'm struck by the contrast I just mentioned. In my professional circles, it's usually seen as a dull administrative matter. I have a green card, they understand, so it isn't complicated. You fill in some forms, take a little test, swear an oath of some kind, and get a second passport. (Useful thing to have, though it means you'll have to do jury service.) My West Virginia neighbors see it as a really big deal. At the moment I'm British, and I've decided I want to be an American. (Wow.)

On this subject, I share the West Virginian view of the world. I think acquiring U.S. citizenship is a big deal, and I've hesitated over it. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of dual citizenship, something that the U.S. and Britain (unlike Japan and the Netherlands, for instance) tacitly allow. If the U.S. will have me, I'm enough of a pragmatist to keep my British passport for as long as that's allowed, yet principled enough to want to be sure I'd choose the U.S. over the U.K. if ever required to pick — as, in fact, I believe I should be.

In urban settings, this position elicits laughter and a rolling of eyes — not least from my native-born American wife, who also happens to be Canadian and Irish. Sorry, dear: There's something unsatisfactory about pledging loyalty to more than one country. In West Virginia, at least, they understand.

Granted, the urban gentry's discomfort with citizenship is in part both rational and ethically sound. People are people, right? And they don't choose where they're born. Why should the mere accident of starting out in a rich country endow a person with rights denied to others less fortunate? It's a good question. There's no avoiding it: The idea of citizenship does involve blinding oneself to the idea of (what used to be called) the brotherhood of man.

This moral blindness can seem especially offensive when it comes to dealing with people who came to the country (or remained here) illegally, but have lived here for many years — as family, or as valued friends, neighbors, co-workers and otherwise law-abiding taxpayers. The more so, of course, if they didn't choose to put themselves in that position. The plight of young people in the U.S. ensnared in the mess called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals shocks the conscience, or ought to.

The U.K.'s Windrush scandal, which has just claimed the head of another member of Theresa May's beleaguered government, is even more egregious. Children who came to Britain from Commonwealth countries before 1971, admitted on their parents' British passports but without documents of their own, have been asked to prove their entitlement to remain in the country and threatened with removal — 50 years on. Plumbing new depths of bureaucratic cruelty and incompetence, the episode seems to discredit the very idea of citizenship.

The trouble is, that idea is indispensable for liberal democratic government. A radical libertarian is entitled to disagree, but if your view of government, whether conservative or progressive, involves taking from some and giving to others, it requires a measure of social solidarity. The more taking and giving you hope to do — the more progressive your ambitions for national politics — the more solidarity you're likely to require.

Social solidarity has to be about more than merely being there. It involves a sense of mutual obligation — and not just what's required by law. Like citizenship, social solidarity is both inclusive and exclusive. It's inclusive because it binds people together. It's unavoidably exclusive because not everybody gets bound in. As long as national politics is the principal driver of government action, liberal democracies will need citizens who think of themselves as citizens — even if that does entail a degree of moral blindness. The strand of progressivism that favors open borders is founded on a contradiction.

A liberal conception of citizenship recognizes certain universal human rights and the demands of ordinary decency so far as non-citizens are concerned. It understands that people are people, and owe each other something on that account alone. For that reason, it rejects ethno-nationalism and other kinds of racism out of hand. It also understands the benefits that a liberal immigration policy can bring to existing citizens. But it doesn't deny citizens the right to make that judgment. It puts citizens first. It never suggests that citizenship doesn't much matter.

The weaker the commitment to citizenship, the worse the prospects for liberal democracy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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