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The Good Citizen

Kaleigh B

This week I finished my study of The Good Citizen (1998) by Michael Schudson. Schudson traces the evolution of American citizenship from the colonial era to today. He argues that just after America gained its independence, the virtues of the farmer were the virtues of the ideal citizen: independence, self-sufficiency, a permanent commitment to the community, and a high regard for protecting the same virtues in others. Beginning in the 1800s, however, America underwent a democratic transition. Social control and social patterns began to shift from the personal to the interpersonal with the rise of universal education and organized associations of equals. A second transformation occurred from 1865-1920s when new systems for voting (which included a state-printed, secretly submitted ballot that replaced the old public voting mechanisms) transformed voting from a social and public duty to a private right. Suddenly, politics and political engagement became less of a relationship to political parties and the community and more of a connection to the state and principles/issues. People were expected to be the “informed” citizen that is largely still the ideal today. Equally important was the later shift to the “rights-bearing” citizen that came with the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement. Individuals were expected to claim rights and states were expected to enforce them. Schudson ends his book by questioning the “informed” and the “rights-bearing” citizens that characterize modern politics. If individuals claim rights, does that leave out the concerns of group rights? Can people truly be “informed” when politics is so pervasive in everyday life? Though Schudson is optimistic that politics will likely be characterized by the “monitorial” citizen who can be a watchdog for rights violations and gross political error, I’m less convinced that this is the case. The “monitorial” citizen that Schudson describes depends on the ability to receive clear, unbiased, and, indeed, all information necessary to keep politicians and other groups responsive to public demands. But with information filtered through the media, social media, political parties, businesses, etc. is it really possible to be well-informed? I think not. Who but the most involved hear about the dangers of continual emphases on growth? Who but the most interested remembers their friends discussing corporate responsibility standards on their Facebook page? In my opinion, the ideal citizen in society today is still one that is well-informed–people are expected to understand the issues and the candidates. The fundamental problem is whether or not this is even possible in today’s individualized climate.