Democratic Citizenship

Political World Map. (Credit: Ionut Cojocaru / Wikimedia Commons)

Political World Map. (Credit: Ionut Cojocaru / Wikimedia Commons)

Nationalism is on the decline.   Outbursts of patriotism are the forlorn growl of chauvinism in retreat. Globalization is ascendant, and with it we face a new set of challenges and opportunities for transforming the war state.

A narrow sense of American citizenship is yesterday’s reality. As a consequence of “the global diffusion of culture and democratic governance,” argues Peter Sapiro, political community is migrating beyond the confines of the nation-state. That does not mean that our troubles are over, however. It means “citizenship can no longer be addressed in comfortable isolation.” When “the state no longer dominates identity,” we are faced with “remapping the contours” of political community (Beyond Citizenship: American Identity after Globalization, 2008, pp. 5-6, 162).

Americans have prospered in the state-based world at the expense of others, and there is no global community ready to replace the old nationalism. It is a scary proposition to contemplate the descent of American exceptionalism and the prospect of chaos.

Fear of lost privilege can provoke denial and violence, no doubt, and enemies can be found or manufactured without end. Terrorism is a perfect cipher for the decline. So long as we are occupied with defending the homeland from a global threat, we don’t have to confront the challenge of adapting to a world community.

Of course, Sapiro could be wrong about the long-term impact of globalization on nationalism. Yet, his observation that citizenship is migrating away from the nation-state raises the question of how we might transcend a history of xenophobia. It is one thing to say that democratic governance has been diffused but quite another to consider what kind of citizenship a healthy democratic culture entails.

Democratic citizenship in an expanded world requires the emergence of the democratic self that Walt Whitman envisioned. It isn’t an isolated or exclusive self. The inclusive I encompasses the multiplicity of Them. “I am large,” Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes” (“Song of Myself,” Part 51). This aggregate of diversity is cause for political deliberation and dissent rather than violent combat with outside others, recrimination of inside others, and divisive diatribes against each other.

Democratic citizenship entails a dynamic democratic self, which in turn requires a robust democratic persuasion to mitigate the bad habits of war culture. It is no small challenge to open ourselves to the prospect of being persuaded by others, especially when we habitually defend ourselves from differences perceived as illegitimate and malevolent.

Acrimony is a habit of war culture. It’s you and me against the world, and I have my suspicions about you. The narrow band of identification that constitutes American identity opposes us to almost everyone else and makes us suspicious even of the differences among ourselves.   Rather than acknowledge our own shortcomings as a people, we suppress and project them onto other people, making others into enemies by demonizing and dehumanizing them.  War is a never-ending rite of self-purification that requires killing an enemy so that we can sustain our self-delusion of unblemished goodness and virtue.

Democratic citizenship expands the truncated national identity, broadens the narrow band of identification with others, and engages in spirited debate without reducing adversaries to enemies. The democratic persuasion transcends animosity and violence, not conflict.



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