THR Blog   /   May 13, 2020

Our Once and Future Citizens

How might the pandemic alter civic engagement?

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Social distancing while voting in Bedford, MA; The Bedford Citizen.)

When historians and political theorists narrate the history of citizenship in the West, they generally visit five landmark moments: the ancient Greek polis; the late Roman Empire (in which citizenship rights were vastly expanded); the late medieval Italian city-states; the centralizing states of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century. From this historical grand tour, scholars have derived two competing portraits of the citizen, one called “republican” and the other “liberal.”

The first, promoted by Aristotle, takes citizenship to be a call to action. The republican citizen should participate regularly and vigorously in the community, serving in the military and government office. The citizen’s virtues, this tradition preaches, should be civic virtues, and the affairs of the city ought to lie at the forefront of citizens’ consciousness.

The liberal citizen, meanwhile, is comparatively passive. The presumed context of citizenship in this tradition is not the relatively small, tightly-knit community in which the republican model emerged; it is not the city-state such as ancient Athens or Dante’s Florence in which all citizens could be expected to participate in civic matters. Rather the liberal tradition presupposes societies of far larger scale—principally what the French philosophe Benjamin Constant dubbed “our great modern states.” Such a community is simply too big and too heterogeneous to make the “all-in” sort of citizenship imagined by Aristotle feasible. Citizenship is thus, for the vast majority of people, more abstract than hands-on—less about daily civic engagement and service than legal status. The result is a citizenry whose political participation might be limited to occasional appearances in the political realm—say, showing up for a town council meeting once in a while or voting in national elections. Under the republican conception, citizens “fly” to public assemblies (to borrow an image from Rousseau’s Social Contract). Under the liberal, by contrast, you might be counted a “good citizen” if you picked up litter, stood for the national anthem, and paid your taxes on time.

By the late twentieth century, leading political and social theorists such as J.G.A. Pocock, Michael Walzer, and Peter Riesenberg concurred that liberal citizenship—or what Riesenberg dubbed “second citizenship”—had not only bested its rival but was here to stay. Riesenberg argued that civic virtues necessary to sustain republican citizenship had been “draining” out of Western society for centuries. Walzer cited the French Revolution as a demonstratation of the disastrous consequences of trying to impose a republican notion of citizenship on a modern society. In the West at least, the liberal citizen thus appeared to be the last citizen. Republican citizenship survived not as a viable model for the daily life of the average Joe or Jane but only as a set of ideals embedded in the discourse of citizenship itself, with such texts as the Politics or The Social Contract serving as enduring reminders of what citizenship once could be.

In the three decades since the apparent triumph of liberal citizenship, however, many scholars—including some of those earlier thinkers—have had second thoughts about both the desirability of that form of citizenship and its adequacy as a description for actually existing citizens today. The 2017 Oxford Handbook of Citizenship put the point forcefully in its first sentence: “Citizenship is back with a vengeance.” Behind this return are the new and mounting challenges of recent decades: What does it mean to be a citizen in the midst of ever-expanding globalization? What are we to make—theoretically and practically—of the millions of people worldwide forced out of their homelands into refugee camps? What of the millions of undocumented immigrants living and working without legal status? Should there be a path to citizenship for them? Their children? Movements like Black Lives Matter in the United States and aboriginal groups worldwide have pointed to the failure of Western governments to fulfill their end of the liberal citizenship bargain. Even before the pandemic began, the question of citizenship had again become a matter of lively debate both among scholars and the general public.

But the pandemic has brought the question to a critical head. What it means to be a citizen is now a dilemma of everyday life. Current conditions are difficult to read according to the model of triumphant liberal citizenship. Social distancing and lockdowns appear to be a victory for governors who have issued passionate calls for civic-minded behavior, encapsulated in mottos like “Stay home. Save lives.” That those calls have been, for the most part, heeded by the citizenry, including by the young for whom the virus poses the least threat, shows that the republican spirit isn’t dead after all. And the notion of a “citizen-as-hero” seems pertinent to what New Yorkers are doing when they bang pots and pans at night to laud  their “healthcare heroes.”

Yet a motto like “Stay home. Save lives” also speaks to the strangeness of our situation, because it encourages us to fly from each other and from the public spaces that are supposed to be—in the republican tradition, anyway—the citizen’s true haunt. Life now seem an almost comically hyperbolic version of the “passivity” attributed to liberal citizenship, and unsurprisingly protests against stay-at-home orders—pitched in terms of the protection of citizens’ rights—have begun.

Perhaps the greatest puzzle raised by the pandemic is how we use the Internet in the service of citizenship. I am old enough to have seen the Internet promoted as the next big thing in democracy—a new public square in which citizens could voice their ideas and assemble—and, only a decade later, to have heard “digital democracy” declared a “myth.” As a means of forming citizens, the Internet looks to many observers like a lost cause, given how overheated online political rhetoric has become. But the problem of the present hour isn’t so much whether the Internet is a healthy or useful expressive medium, a place where your cantankerous uncle can rant about the [insert political party name]. It is, rather, whether the infrastructure of the Web can facilitate the basic business of citizenship—filing an unemployment claim, conducting public education, voting.

Experiments in that kind of digital citizenship are, in some locales, already decades old. With an initiative called “E-Estonia,” for example, the small Baltic nation of Estonia declared Internet access a human right in 2000 and within a few years brought almost all of its citizens online. In little more than a decade, the nation had launched e-voting, e-public safety, e-health, and e-land initiatives. With an ID card and a PIN, citizens could call up medical records, submit taxes, summon an ambulance, research a property’s history, and, starting this year, register a child’s birth.

When I first heard and wrote about Estonia’s experiment, I was a little skeptical, particularly of its “e-residency” program, which offers purchasers a “transnational digital identity” allowing access to E-Estonia’s digital platforms. But in light of our current conditions, I’m looking at E-Estonia in a new way. Wouldn’t it be nice to vote in elections without having to endanger the lives of the volunteers at the polling station (who in my area are often retirees)—or risk getting sick myself? Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of that infrastructure—not only the physical capacity but the years of experience managing it already in place? For fleeting moments, I’ve wondered about packing up for the Baltics.

But US citizens needn’t travel to see such an experiment in operation: Our own is now beginning. Only days ago, media outlets announced that three eastern states—New Jersey, Delaware, and West Virginia—are seriously considering setting up e-voting systems for upcoming local elections and their presidential primaries. Apparently, other states are mulling even grander schemes. Numerous states have already begun to overhaul their websites to encourage citizens to use them rather than paying in-person visits to places such as the DMV and the unemployment office. We are, in effect, slowly launching E-USA. The question in coming months, and perhaps years, is whether digital citizenship of the sort attempted in Estonia is really possible in a “great modern state” like the United States.

The bigger question, though, is whether it will be a good thing. It is easy to foresee how increasing reliance on digital media to support citizenship will exacerbate “second citizenship,” leaving us with no more than virtual or digital citizenship. If so, will poor Internet service become tantamount to disenfranchisement? My greatest concern is what the philosopher Luciano Floridi calls “infraethics,” or the “ethical infrastructure” that shapes how we relate to one another. That indeed, is, what E-Estonia and like ventures amount to: infrastructures for promoting both a “digital society” and the citizens who can contentedly dwell together within it. I wonder what future historians will see when they look back at this moment. Will digital citizenship appear to be merely the consummation of what was already in place—a solidifying of liberal citizenship’s hold? Or will the pandemic be seen as having created a whole new model of citizenship?