Title: Death of Citizenship?
20 - February - Lecture
22 - February - Discussion
Lecturer: Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science

Lecturer BIO : Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale. His major works include Social Justice in the Liberal State (Yale: 1980)and We the People (Harvard, vol. 1: 1991, vol. 2: 1998). He has also written many books on practical problems ranging from housing policy to environmental law to welfare policy to international relations--including, most recently, The Stakeholder Society (with Anne Alstott, Yale: 1999). He is a member of the American Law Institute and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Lecture Description:

While philosophers debate the nature of democratic citizenship, the practice of citizenship is disintegrating before our eyes. Vietnam killed the citizen army. Television killed the political party as a popular institution. The citizen jury is on the fringe of everyday life -- while jury duty has not yet completely disintegrated in manner of service in the citizen militia, it is nothing more than a momentary nuisance. The only significant institution that still invites involvement by ordinary people is the public school, and it too is under attack.

The rituals of citizenship have been stripped down to a precious few -- besides the formal act of voting, perhaps the most significant ordinary act of citizenship is to show one's passport at the border, and thereby gain admission to this land of peace and plenty. But it is quite possible to live life in America today without ever dealing with others as fellow citizens - fellow workers or professionals, yes; fellow religionists or union members, yes; but fellow citizens, focusing on our common predicament as Americans, no -- that's for TV pundits.

Within this setting, the disagreements between so-called communitarians like Mike Walzer and so-called liberals like myself pale into insignificance. For both of us, the foundation of legitimate politics is an ongoing conversation among citizens; and such a conversation presupposes that people recognize each other as the sorts of creatures who meaningfully engage in such conversations. This recognition does not emerge magically from a state of nature. While it might have evolved spontaneously under the conditions of the Greek polis or the Italian city-state, this is definitely not true today. It is perfectly possible for us to live in mass market society without ever taking citizenship seriously.
As Benedict Anderson has taught us, the nation state is a form of imagined community -- allowing hundreds of millions to create a political bond. But if these imagined communities are to survive as genuine conversational communities, they require something more than the New York Times and Saturday Night Live, or even Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison. They require on-going social contexts within which ordinary Americans enact and reenact their national citizenship in ways that seem meaningful to them.

I emphasize "meaningful to them, not to some philosopher harkening back to the imagined glories of classical Greece or Rome or even earlier phases of the American Republic. To be sure, I have nothing against inspired efforts to defend or rejuvenate one or another aspect of our liberal republican tradition -- especially the public school, but also the distinctive practices of American constitutionalism. But I do not think such rearguard actions will be enough without more affirmative exercises of the political imagination. We must invent new contexts within which Americans can recognize themselves as citizens, contexts that resonate meaningfully within the larger structures of life as we know it. This is at least the animating thought that motivates my proposal for a new liberal agenda.
It is, of course, a difficult, maybe daunting, thought: Is it even possible to invent meaningful contexts of citizenship? Aren't they stuff that simply grow organically out of the dynamics of a Tocquevillean society like our own? And if Tocquevillean society is dying, and can no longer generate contexts of citizenship through the "invisible hand", is it really possible for more self-conscious forms of political artifice to save the day? Anyway, even if it is possible, do we have the knowledge required to engage in meaningful acts of invention?

Rather than engaging in meta-speculation about the foundations of such a project, I will summarize three initiatives of mine which exemplify it. Each is a book I am writing in collaboration with a different co-author, and each gets on with the business of making a practical proposal which, if adopted, would create a new and meaningful context in which ordinary Americans would think of themselves as citizens, as opposed to mothers and fathers, workers or bosses, Catholics or Jews.

All three books adopt a stance that I will playfully call realistic utopian. Beginning with the realistic side of this oxymoron, each works out its particular proposal with all the tools of modern public policy analysis and aspires to the (undoubtedly unattainable) ideals of rigorous empirical demonstration prized in the Kennedy School and like institutions throughout the land. The task, in short, is to establish -- as well as such things can be established-- that the proposal will actually operate effectively as a functioning part of contemporary American society. But unlike most policy work, my focus is not on relatively minor modifications of the status quo, as defined by existing political forces and understandings. Instead, my aim is unabashedly driven by philosophical concerns: How might we change the world so as to create meaningful contexts for liberal citizenship? If something is doable, and pushes us in the right direction, then it should be added to the next liberal agenda. For God knows, we need a new liberal agenda, one more inspiring than subsidized prescriptions for the elderly and the elimination of the national debt by 2012.

I will end by taking a step back to the meta-level : suppose, heroically, that my three proposals seem both practical and desirable, what does that teach us about the daunting question I left dangling about the art of political invention: Is there anything generalizable to be learned from these three particular exercises in citizenship construction?

Copyright 2001, Bruce Ackerman






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