Democracy: A Journal of (Bad) Ideas

I’m glad to see a left-ish journal discussing citizenship, but I can’t find a lot to agree with here:

We at Democracy, while not for a second denying the need for constant vigilance with regard to rights, have long felt that progressives frankly don’t care enough about the other side of citizenship: responsibility. Here, we don’t mean—to use that phrase that Bill Clinton tried to appropriate from the Republicans in the 1990s—personal responsibility. We mean something else: civic responsibility. What it means to be a true and good and productive citizen. The obligations that come along with rights. These obligations can sound quaint and as fusty as something delivered by the Wells Fargo Wagon. But they’re real: the need to contribute to one’s community and country; to understand that one’s rights must exist in balance with other prerogatives; to commit oneself to the idea that political disputes should be resolved more or less amicably; to pledge loyalty to the ideals of reasoned debate, majority rule, protections of minority rights, and so on.

This—not just the securing of a right—is citizenship, and the sad record tells us that it just isn’t very important to progressives today. In stark contrast to the vast constellation of rights-based outfits, very few groups are organized around citizenship, and very little money is spent fostering it. The rights-obligations scales are wildly out of balance, and have been for decades.

In my experience, this kind of dour, Character Counts-style citizenship is overemphasized—to the detriment of advancing conceptions that view citizenship as a form of empowerment. Democracy, at its core, is a radical notion: An affirmation of each person’s humanity and right to self-determination, equality is a sin qua non, profound power imbalances calamitous. (This is why democracy’s marriage with capitalism is so precarious, as neoliberal globalization has laid bare. The two privilege different sets of rights and, left unchecked, capitalism has an insatiable appetite for commodification.) Under democracy, citizens are agents of their collective destiny, able to tame, unleash, and canalize forces that would otherwise be beyond their control. And the marginalized and historically oppressed have just as much right to govern; if democracy is deepened, they’ll become full citizens, not supplicants.

That’s a heck of a lot more meaningful than invoking obligation—especially at a time when democratic equality is in retreat.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. Agreed. Also, it seems to me the most important elements of civic citizenship are about exercising rights – free speech and press being the most obvious example.

  2. The kind of people under discussion here are the kind of people who come here to work, to make better lives for themselves and their children. We’re not talking about criminals here, we’re talking about people who if given the chance, will find steady work, pay taxes, buy homes, raise and educate children, and quite probably, join and be active in local churches or similar community organizations.

    Right-wingers like to dwell on the fact that some people who come here (with or without documentation) become criminals, which is true enough, unfortunately, but most are people who are … just people. And like most of the rest of us who are also just people, they’ll do the right things, most of the time, all on their own, if only given a chance to do so.

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