Citizenship Beyond the Election

Following up on yesterday’s election, a member of our team asked me to write up some thoughts around the meaning of citizenship and democracy. We talk often not only how our work is about government and not politics and how we’re trying just as hard to reinvent citizenship as much as bureaucracy. But what does that look like?

To me? This:

That’s citizenship.

That’s a picture taken in New York City in the midst of Hurricane Sandy last week, posted by George Takei to Facebook. It shows two power strips hanging over the gratework of a home’s fence, half a dozen phone cords latched from each one, and a sign reading, “We have power. Please feel free to charge your phone!”

That’s citizenship.

When that family could have been — and rightly so — focused inward, ensuring their house was in order, that they were safe and comfortably tucked in (and that they had all the power outlets they needed), they looked outside. They realized that their neighbors might not be so lucky. They decided to help.

That’s citizenship: outward looking, supportive, and proactive.

See, the challenge for citizenship in many ways is democracy itself. Democratic processes, like yesterday’s election, reinforce a conception of society that is all about you and the political system. You cast your ballot based on your preference for your candidates. And then you look to your candidates to deliver on their promises to help make your cities, states, and country better. Then we begin to see our citizenship defined by voting, and by the relationship between government and each of us individually.

But this is to belie the very meaning of democracy as self-government. Our public institutions — city hall, the state house, congress, and the like — are just tools we use to self-govern. Our community groups and neighborhood associations are more of the same. As Tim O’Reilly once said, “Government is what we do together.” and I would add that citizenship is why. Citizenship is the response to the recognition that we have common needs with action. It’s stepping up. It’s voting, yes, but it’s also pulling a weed, adopting a hydrant, or even hanging a powerstrip over the fence in the storm.

The French Observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted this particularly American form of citizenship dating back to the early 1830s. He said that it’s what powered our “American Democracy” — one more robust and energetic than others at the time. He noticed that here in America, people helped each other, and that made all the difference: it set a standard for citizenship which wasn’t defined just by voting or politics, but of action:

“As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States has taken up a opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance, and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine… From that moment, they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to.”

Now, that the election is over. It’s time to refocus our attention on citizenship and figuring out what “we the people” can do together.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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