June 20, 1996

June 20, 1996 | Commentary on

ED062096a: The Recovery of American Citizenship

When America's founding fathers talked about "citizenship," they meant people -- not political elites -- taking responsibility for themselves, their families, their communities. This Fourth of July, Americans should think about joining a movement that would restore the founders' vision of how Americans solve their problems.

I'm talking about the "citizenship" movement, which aims to rein in Washington so the energy and effectiveness of state and local government and private alternatives to government can be explored to the fullest. One of America's core objectives during the next 20 years should be to recover this tradition of American citizenship. We must restore the link between freedom and personal responsibility, the two great themes of modern conservatism, and an increasingly attractive idea to liberals beginning to see the futility of government solutions. Our hope is that we can overcome much of the divisiveness and incivility that has characterized political discourse over the past several decades.

Americans come from all races, all nationalities, all religions. We are united in citizenship not by common ancestry but by a common commitment to the principles of the United States: the rule of law, the decentralized government promised by our Constitution, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Americans are united, too, by the common duties of citizenship: the obligation to protect our country from foreign enemies, to take care of our own families, to participate actively in civic life, to assist our neighbors and communities when they are needy, and, in turn, not to take advantage of others' generosity when we can take care of ourselves.

This distinctively American tradition of citizenship was best described by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America," his classic book of 1832. Tocqueville described America as the most democratic, most egalitarian, most religious, most prosperous, most charitable country on earth -- with limited national government and active citizen involvement in local government. It was an America of strong families and entrepreneurial business leadership, an America where voluntary associations of citizens were more important -- and more powerful -- than politicians in addressing the problems of their own communities.

This is not to say Tocqueville's America wasn't marred by some terrible evils -- most notably the scourge of slavery. But there also were many things of which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could be proud. It was a republic of self-governing citizens, which is what the founding fathers envisioned when they declared independence from England and wrote our Constitution.

To revive the founders' dream, it is essential to reduce the size and scope of the national government. But just as liberals must learn to accept this fact, conservatives must understand that merely tearing down the Washington establishment will not be sufficient. It is also essential to strengthen the families, voluntary associations, churches and other religious organizations, local governments and other institutions of civil society that will remedy the ills left untreated by failed federal-government programs.

Revivals of private initiative have happened before. The second half of the 19th and the early 20th century saw the creation of the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, YMCAs and YWCAs, and countless other voluntary organizations that strengthened character and addressed the failings of their communities. A similar wave of social entrepreneurship will sweep America in the next generation.

The recovery of American citizenship is the most important unifying principle for Americans in the post-Cold War era. It appeals to libertarians with their emphasis on a free society of voluntary, non-governmental institutions. It appeals to those with religious values who emphasize faith and family and responsibility for the needy. It appeals to growth-and-opportunity conservatives who emphasize economic freedom. With its attention to the common obligations of citizenship, this idea appeals to nationalists who want to restore a strong sense of American cultural identity. And it appeals to liberals and their love for community activism.

"Without local institutions," wrote Tocqueville 160 years ago, "a nation may give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of liberty." It is time for all Americans to help rebuild the local institutions that will bring back our spirit of liberty.

Note: Adam Meyerson is editor of Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship, a magazine published by The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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