Is Our Civic Life Really In Decline?

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Today we are at the tail end of the long Progressive Era. We know it has got us less than we hoped, but we don’t know how to picture a mode of citizenship that might give us more. Not that it is at all the whole story of citizenship in this century. Citizenship has changed again in the past fifty years, as the civil rights movement and the “rights revolution” broadly added the courtroom to the voting booth as a locus for civic participation. Social movements and political organizations that in the past could hope for change only through legislative action have found that the judicial system can offer a powerful alternative route to their goals.

The civil rights movement opened the door to a widening web of constitutionally guaranteed citizen rights and state and federal laws that expanded citizens’ entitlements and the reach of due process. This affected not only the civil and political rights of African-Americans but the rights of women and of the poor and, increasingly, of minority groups of all sorts. A new notion of citizenship has thus overflowed the banks of electoral activity, opening a new channel in the courts and streaming on across the terrain of everyday life into schools, workplaces, and homes.

The acts and avenues of citizenship today are a world away from anything Jefferson and Washington lived with or conceived of. Today we are left with the legacy of each of the past eras of citizenship. Our inheritance of the politics of assent, the politics of partisanship and loyalty, the politics of the informed citizen, and the politics of rights, together, in all their variety, gives us our historical resource for forging a new model of citizenship for the new century.