Ideas | Zachary Davis

Three models of citizenship

Dan Pecci

Marissa Johnson, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle, climbed onto the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally on Aug. 8, 2015. After a brief argument with the rally’s organizers, Johnson took the microphone and initiated four-and-a-half minutes of silence in honor of Michael Brown, the black man who had been shot by police the year before.

Danielle Allen, a political philosophy professor at Harvard, has identified three distinct models of citizenship, all of which were on display when Johnson took the stage. These three types of citizenship are sometimes in conflict, which goes a long way towards explaining the frictions in our civic space.

The first model of citizenship is that of the statesperson, a lawmaker who solves issues through debate and consensus. This was the image of citizenship for millennia. But it was also limited in its usefulness, because it excludes members of society who don’t have the same access to political power.


The second model of citizenship is the informed citizen. In Seattle, the audience played this role. This concept stems from the Progressive Era of the late 19th century, when many excluded groups began demanding more direct influence over government. These activists focused on expanding voting access and emphasized each citizen’s duty to learn the issues and vote responsibly.

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But even the most informed voter’s power can be limited. During the civil rights movement, a third kind of citizen emerged, which Allen calls “the citizen as active defender of rights.” These citizens go beyond the ballot box and engage in boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations to ensure that all members of society receive equal protection under the law. The civil rights movement didn’t invent civil disobedience, but it took it mainstream. Under this third view, when Johnson seized the microphone and hijacked the rally, she wasn’t getting in the way of citizenship — she was practicing it.

“One of the biggest challenges for civic agents now in the US is that we have all three of these models bumping around in our imaginations,” Allen says. To dispassionate statespeople, activists are unruly. To passionate activists, statespeople are disguising their partial interests. “We have this battle about what is exactly the right picture of civic agency,” Allen says. According to her, we need all three.

Zachary Davis is the host of the podcast “Ministry of Ideas.” Listen at, iTunes, or GooglePlay.