The Ten Habits of Good Citizens

From a Wall Street Journal review by Leslie Lenkowski of the book by Richard Haass titled “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens”

Last month it was reported that, between September 2020 and September 2021, less than a quarter of American adults volunteered for a civic organization—the smallest share of the population since 2002, when the Census Bureau, along with AmeriCorps, the national service agency, began keeping track. Just half of the public said that they had helped friends or neighbors informally during the year—e.g., lending tools, tending children—and few did so frequently.

Since pandemic social-distancing rules were operating in parts of the country in this period, such findings are not entirely surprising. But they also reflect trends with a longer arc, such as the decadeslong decline in the membership of social and civic groups. The U.S. seems to have gone from “a nation of joiners” (as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. put it in 1944) to “a nation of spectators” (as a blue-ribbon commission declared at the end of the 1990s). More than a few people, following a theme in Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” worry that reduced social involvement will weaken the skills and customs needed for democratic government.

The latest commentator to take up this theme is Richard Haass, the retiring president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran Washington policy maker. In “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens,” he contends that the U.S. has placed too much emphasis on securing the rights of Americans and not enough on promoting their duties as citizens. “Our very concept of citizenship needs to be revised,” he writes, “or better yet expanded, if American democracy is to survive.”

Among other things, Mr. Haass wants Americans to learn more about civics and become better informed about public affairs—to know more about the structure of government and become acquainted with, say, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution. They should have more respect for those who work for government and for “institutional” norms, such as putting long-term, national interests ahead of short-term, personal ones. And, yes, they should help out their fellow citizens, in small neighborly ways and with the larger goal of lifetime involvement in public service. Reflecting his alarm about the Trump administration and the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on Congress (which, he says, motivated the writing of this book), Mr. Haass wishes that Americans would be more civil toward one another, reject violence and accept the need to compromise. “We get the government and the country we deserve,” he concludes. “Getting the one we need, however, is up to us.”

Mr. Haass devotes a chapter to each of his 10 “obligations” of citizenship, explaining what we should (and should not) do. For instance, we should avoid the spectator role and “get involved”—by voting and contributing time and money to candidates. And we should avoid the tendency to turn transient political disagreements into acrid arguments over unshakable principle. As worthy as such instruction may be, Mr. Haass’s account fails to deal adequately with the question of exactly why we are not fulfilling our core civic obligations and what can be done about it.

Mr. Haass is too experienced in the ways of government to think that a more robust concept of citizenship can be legislated. Yes, laws could require more schools to teach civics or, as he suggests, more young people to perform national service (although he glosses over the thorny matters of agreeing on what should be taught or on how programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, now small and voluntary, can recruit more participants without becoming mandatory). But building a stronger sense of citizenship will mostly depend, Mr. Haass writes, on the actions of leaders in government, business, religion and entertainment, who can use their influence to get “those they reach to embrace obligations.”

American life used to be full of such efforts. Schoolchildren not only studied civics but also joined organizations, like the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, that taught citizenship. National holidays were seen as occasions to learn about great figures (even Christopher Columbus) and pivotal episodes in America’s history, not just to take a day off and go shopping. Movies extolled the “Mr. Smiths” who took on corrupt politicians. Clergy and civil-rights leaders celebrated “brotherhood.” Not least, for three decades, in peacetime as well as in war, a military draft taught young men about putting country before self.

What has happened to these kinds of customs and commitments? Mr. Haass offers a familiar list of culprits: divisive social media; income inequality; residential and occupational “sorting” by race, religion and education; the polarizing actions of politicians, especially in the Trump administration. No doubt all of these forces have had an effect. So too have the criticisms, from across the political spectrum, that bring into question American history and ideals, the fairness of American society and institutions, and the ability of individuals to make a difference in the face of supposedly hidden forces. With all that is claimed to be wrong with the United States, no wonder fewer people are putting the interests of their country first.

To make matters worse, these criticisms often come from the very leaders who, as Mr. Haass sees it, ought to be influencing their fellow citizens “to embrace obligations.” And government itself can play a less than positive role, undermining civic fellowship with well-intentioned but misguided policies, such as the Covid pandemic’s rules that kept adults from the workplace and children from school.

The United States used to have a variety of ways of instilling “civil religion” (as a sociologist called it), not least among people who emigrated from countries with scant democratic traditions. Mr. Haass has provided a timely call for reinvigorating these practices, but it’s not likely to succeed as long as national influencers keep questioning whether the country is worth serving.

Leslie Lenkowsky is a professor emeritus at Indiana University.

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