Citizenship and Civic Leadership in America 
Edited by Carol McNamara and Trevor Shelley.
Lexington Books, 2022.
Paperback, 326 pages, $42.99.

Reviewed by Hans Zeiger.

Carol McNamara and Trevor Shelley have edited a wonderful collection of essays about topics related to citizenship. The essays are wide-ranging, and even include some lively disagreements among the contributors. McNamara and Shelley write in their introduction that renewal of American civic life must come “through civic education, which cannot but begin with understanding citizenship.” They rightly demonstrate that recovering citizenship is essential to preserving America’s constitutional tradition.

Today, the word citizenship is undervalued in our public usage. Citizenship is often used to merely denote a status of nationality, in contrast to one who is a non-citizen. To speak of “citizens” then can seem, in certain contexts, to exclude the many immigrants among us who do not hold citizenship yet play an essential role in our national life. 

But there is more to citizenship than mere nationality. After all, we expect things of citizens in a self-governing society. And these expectations extend beyond voting in elections. Political scientist Greg Weiner, president of Assumption University, writes of one important civic responsibility in an essay about Madison’s views on civic virtue: “[F]or Madison, our ongoing engagement with the regime includes a responsibility of oversight. We cannot cast our ballots and check out for two years….Vigilance and fortitude do not require that we pilot the ship, but they do require us to say something if it is sinking or off course.” To maintain the republic, citizens must keep close watch over their government.  

Another expectation of citizenship is our engagement in the community around us. According to political scientist Peter Levine of Tufts University, the key question of citizenship is, “What should we do?” This is a question about obligation, about action, and about common commitments. He draws out the ways our idea of “citizenship” shapes how we understand ourselves to be a part of the community, as well as what we do when we get involved in shared endeavors with our fellow community-members. 

There is also the related question of how citizens relate to one another. Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center emphasizes the importance of people “seeing their fellow citizens as their equals in at least two core dimensions, liberty and dignity” if liberal democracy is to function. A free society requires the quality of civility, if it is to be sustainable.   

On the matter of civic virtue, Olsen points to the four classical, cardinal virtues as “particularly helpful in understanding what the role of a modern citizen in an American liberal democracy ought to be.” In such a society, he writes, “the identity of a good citizen and a good person is closer than in any other regime previously established. The four virtues—courage, prudence, temperance, and justice—are the ones that a citizen of a liberal democracy in some respect needs.” Among these, Olsen gives high marks to Americans when it comes to courage and prudence, but he has doubts about temperance and justice. No doubt all of these virtues are worth bringing back into public discourse—and cultivating in our individual lives.  

Other writers, including historian Wilfred McClay of Hillsdale College and political scientist Susan McWilliams Barndt of Pomona College, stress the contextual knowledge that is required for active citizenship. As McWilliams Barndt writes in a memorable interpretation of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” citizens who take their place in the midst of a democratic order require an explanation, just as Rip Van Winkle needed to hear that his national identity had changed after he slept through the American Revolution. “Civic education is required merely to comprehend the basic terms of American life,” writes McWilliams Barndt. 

If citizenship is more than status of nationality and voting, civics—the educational formation of citizens—must be about much more as well. According to McClay, civics “extends far beyond the mechanics of how a bill becomes a law….[C]ivic education is more than a guidebook for practical action, and more than an initiation into a canon of ideas, although it should be both of those things. It is an initiation into a community; and not just a community of the present…but also of memory—a long human chain linking past, present, and future in shared recognition and, one hopes, in gratitude.” Here McClay identifies at least four ingredients that are needed for American civics: an understanding of the American creed, preparation for civic engagement, a sense of membership, and a sense of history.

Drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville, Trevor Shelley commends experiential, “participatory” learning, as opposed to “paternalistic” education as an effective conveyor of “mores” for a sustainable democracy. Civic formation occurs through all kinds of community activities, not just in electoral politics. Keeping up with the degree of civic preparedness that is required in a free society is hard work, and it requires intentional prioritization. “The instruction that Tocqueville offers to citizens and civic leaders is that democracy is constantly and continually in need of instruction,” writes Shelley. “It may therefore be the most demanding political regime to sustain.”

It is fitting that Citizens and Civic Leadership in America opens with essays on political theory, considering aspects of citizenship from the writings of Aristotle (Susan D. Collins) and Rousseau (Clifford Orwin), along with a defense of “liberal citizenship” by political scientist Michael Zuckert in response to the anti-liberal writings of Patrick Deneen. Political scientist Rogers Smith of the University of Pennsylvania considers how the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution can serve as a kind of bridge between constitutionalists of the left and right. “Because of their own principles,” writes Smith, “both conservative constitutional proponents of popular self-governance exercised through institutions of representative democracy and the rule of law, and progressive proponents of broadly inclusive and egalitarian democratic reforms, should see the quest to achieve democratic agreement on measures to advance the nation’s shared political enterprise as the very heart of American citizenship.” If conservatives and progressives can identify within the Fourteenth Amendment a common touchstone for civic purpose, perhaps there is a way forward on any number of divisive issues. 

Appropriately, the book includes a series of essays on immigration, race, globalization, and nationalism. Rich Lowry of National Review contends for nationalism, while in an eloquent rebuttal of nationalism, columnist Shikha Dalmia expresses “the one true source of [Americans’] rootedness: their fondness for their founding principles of equality, individual rights and human dignity,” principles which also connect Americans with people around the world.  

The wide-ranging topics of the essays in Citizenship and Civic Leadership in America deserve serious reflection, which itself points to something important about civic education: civics is more than a series of facts to be memorized, or creative motivations to turn out to the polls. The kind of civics we need includes deep preparation for a life of thoughtful deliberation, a willingness to engage in respectful debate about competing values, and above all a shared set of values that animate our common life as Americans. In advancing this critical agenda, McNamara, Shelley, and their essayists have performed an important service for the republic.  

Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center, a national, nonpartisan educational venture to advance the history, documents, and ideals we hold in common as Americans.

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