Are you a good citizen?
Most of us probably think we are, but let’s be honest, the bar isn’t set particularly high in this country. There’s no obligation to serve in the armed forces or to perform any other sort of national service. Nor is there even a requirement to vote.
Indeed, the current attitude seems to be, yes, millions of Americans are only lightly informed on the critical matters of the day, and yes, many are uncompromising and even belligerent in their politics and opinions, but none of that is a failure of citizenship. Rather, it’s just … the way things are.
Now comes Richard Haass, one of America’s well-known public intellectuals, with a different take. A Democrat in his youth who turned longtime Republican before becoming an independent in 2020, Haass, outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a familiar voice on US foreign policy. An advocate for a strong, American-led West, he believes this country has a unique role to play in world affairs.
But as our democracy has become increasingly polarized, Haass has turned his attention to domestic matters.
In his new book, “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens,” he makes an argument that’s unusual, at least in our time: Democracy can’t simply be about our rights; it must also be about our civic obligations.
“Our democracy is imperiled, and its demise would be an incalculable loss to this country’s citizens and the world,” he writes. “Without a culture of obligation coexisting alongside a commitment to rights, American democracy could well come undone.” He worries that if we as Americans can’t transcend the widening political divide, our democracy may deteriorate into a breakdown of order, an escalation of political violence, and perhaps even attempted secession by some states.
Haass sees the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol as a portent of what could come. His goal with this book is not just to sound an alarm but to nudge Americans toward the type of citizenship he hopes will prevent democratic decay. To that end, he explores 10 qualities or habits he believes should be obligations of good US citizenship.
One, to be reasonably well-informed; two, to be involved, at least at the level of voting; three, to remain open to compromise; four, to stay civil in disagreements; five, to reject violence; six, to value the unwritten norms of our democracy; seven, to promote the country’s common good; eight, to respect government service; nine, to support the teaching of civics; and ten, to put the country before party and person.
There’s not space enough to deal with all that in a single column. But I’m interested in readers’ reactions to the notion that good citizenship entails some effort and obligation.
So let me pose a few questions.
For starters, do you, valued reader, make a reasonable effort to stay current with public events and the American political debate? Do you occasionally convey your views to your political representatives — and consider their responses?
Haass recommends having several sources of news, including at least one national newspaper, and sampling alternative points of view. How do you do on that score? I’d add this: There are a number of well-regarded fact-checking sites available on the Internet, including Politifact and FactCheck.org. Do you visit them occasionally to read their judgments on the political claims of the day?
We all pay lip service to the necessity of compromise, but are you truly open to political solutions that offer only half a loaf — or would you consider an elected official who voted for such a deal someone who should face a primary challenge from a hard-line true believer?
Do you put the good of the country over party advantage? That means accepting the rules of the game and the legal avenues of redress. No matter how much you disliked the result, were you willing to acknowledge George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 as legitimately elected, according to the rules and recourses of our electoral process?
No need to answer this entire list of queries. Just take one or two that interest you and e-mail me your thoughts. But give me your sentiments on this as well. If you agree with Haass that our country needs habits of citizenship that are fuller, more engaged, and more protective of democracy, what is your list of favored civic obligations?
I’ll present reader responses and thoughts in a future column. Some preference will be given to those who are willing to have their full name, age, current or former occupation, and town or region of residence used in that column.
I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say. Thanks to those willing to make the effort; after all, this isn’t an obligation.