Citizenship: a key to better democracy?

I’ve been reflecting further over the past year on the present existential threats to democracy and how they relate to fundamental tensions. In ‘Towards a new civic bureaucrcay’, I explored the single issue of how public bureuacracy has been shaped to move from a guarantor of equal treatment before the law and a potential agent of citizenry to becoming a derided technocratic barrier.

I have been struck recently by the way notions of citizenship play out in current political debate. If one considers the founding words of the revolutionary era: France’s Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, or the United State’s Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness or the Great Seal’s e pluribus unum, one sees a hopeful vision of unity, freedoms and equality of opportunity. But this hopeful vison has always been only partially reflected in democratic forms: even the franchise of one person one vote – a basic element of the equal status of democratic citizenry – has been historically limited, and is again now under pressure.

The fraternity and union of citizenship depends on the ability of citizens to enjoy self-expression and equality of opportunity. This is a complex mix in which these expressions may be in tension. One citizen’s freedom and opportunity may always conflict with another’s. Bridging such tensions requires openness to others, democratic structures which can help to reflect and temper differences, and an underpinning civility in public life. Instead we now see a turning inwards of these hopeful notions:

  • a limiting of fraternity to those citizens who are just like us;
  • a limitation of self-expression to those actions and beliefs we most approve; and
  • a refusal to acknowledge the lack of opportunity available to many citizens through no fault of their own.

The racial and cultural views of citizenship which allow such reinterpretation of these hopeful notions are not new, but from the late 1960s onwards, it appeared that it was the union of citizenship in fraternity and self-expression which was winning out. This was gradually reflected in extended legislative freedoms and rights, though often hard fought. We now appear to be in an opposing cycle where the tensions of citizenship values are being politically explioted rather than bridged or mitigated.

Is it possible for us to reconnect with the founding words of our republics to see that limiting the expression of these values does not build a wall behind which some of us can hide, but rather undermines the basis of the freedoms and opportunities that we cherish as citizens and on which peaceful union is based? To deny the expression of these values to some is to deny it to us all.

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