I, Citizen: A Blueprint for Reclaiming American Self-Governance
Tony Woodlief.  
Encounter Books, 2021.  
Hardcover, 264 pages, $30.99.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Folks.

There is much talk among progressives about being a good “global citizen.” By this, they generally imply the transfer of privileges or assets from one nation or one individual to another in the interest of what they call “equity.” The globalist mission is, in truth, not the creation of good citizens but the suppression of citizenship within particular societies accompanied by acquiescence to global authority. The misguided goal is to create a global egalitarianism in which conflict, competition, and exploitation would be eliminated since all “citizens,” no longer enjoying the rights of citizens in Western democracies, would receive the same limited opportunities as others but far less than those of the ruling political elite. As we now see in America, the globalist vision also involves intolerance toward local and regional variation in laws, manners, and tastes, cultural differences that are among the most valuable aspects of our civilization. The regimentation of humanity under the rule of faceless bureaucracies is a frightening possibility, but one that seems close at hand. 

At the heart of true local citizenship is an awareness of rules of fairness and self-restraint passed down for many generations through biblical and moral teachings. What protects individuals from the selfishness of others, and of themselves, are established beliefs, especially those written down in constitutions, commandments, and moral codes. The inherited idea of citizenship is among the most important of these civilizing ideas, but to be compelling, it must be tied to discrete entities of townships, counties, states, and nations. 

In I, Citizen, Tony Woodlief argues that it is not just the threat of globalism but the impact of political division that threatens the workings of citizenship. Citizenship demands open-minded discourse among persons from different backgrounds and with varying ideas in the interest of forming and preserving a consensus concerning the most advisable form of government. No better example of citizenship can be found than in the remarkable exchange of ideas that took place in the formation of our own Constitution. By communicating with one another without fear of censure in the interest of their newly-formed country, the Founders exercised their right of self-governance and created an extraordinary blueprint for democracy. 

As Woodlief sees it, self-governance of that sort is now threatened by radicals on both the left and right. The resulting polarization has stifled open discussion to the point that politicians, media, educators, and corporate leaders are now constrained by ideology, and everyday Americans tend to follow their lead. Even though this polarization may be driven by no more than twenty percent of the population, those activists who occupy both the left and the right, the remaining eighty percent has been cowed by the fear of being attacked by various factions. In fact, as Woodlief explains, it is the large silent majority that preserves the Founders’ dream of self-governance based on the willingness to bridge differences and arrive at compromise. 

I, Citizen documents the rise of political partisanship, particularly in connection with the nationalization of power in the wake of FDR’s expansion of the federal government during the New Deal. As Woodlief states, “the role of American citizenship…has been altered,” and very much so, by Roosevelt and the several liberal administrations that followed and dominated politics in mid-century America. 

Woodlief offers a compelling account of the rise of an ever larger and more powerful political elite who govern in their own interest even as they proclaim the need to “safeguard democracy” for the majority, whom they believe to be incapable of governing for themselves. In pursuit of these ends, the political class portrays every issue as a crisis that demands acquiescence to their own “experts,” one generation after another of highly-educated advisors dating back to FDR’s Brain Trust. To conceal their self-interest, the elite assure the public that “every problem is now … an urgent national emergency.” The progressive practice is to “never let a crisis go to waste,” and the result is endless expansion of federal spending and the creation of an ever-larger Washington bureaucracy with powers beyond that of Congress or even that of the president. 

In opposition to this federal power, Woodlief urges the expansion of informal citizens groups—Odd Fellows, Elks, Lions, church study associations, or informal discussion groups—as the basis for greater understanding and exchange and a support for local governance. Whatever can return governance to the local level would be helpful, though it is doubtful whether clubs and associations are the only or principal means of restraining federal encroachment. The election of conservatives would seem to be a more effective means, and the elective process requires a commitment to party of the sort that I, Citizen unfortunately portrays as partisan. This leads to the crux of Woodlief’s argument and to its greatest weakness: the belief that both liberals and conservatives are equally at fault in the creation of the federal behemoth and that the solution is to diminish the power and reach of federal authorities and to return governance to the state and local level. Certainly, the battle must be fought at the local level, but why is it that one would so easily concede control at the federal level?

Indeed, Woodlief’s controlling idea of partisanship must be questioned, suggesting as it does the prevalence of extremism on both sides. In fact, what has occurred since the presidencies of Wilson and FDR and what continues today is an ever-greater demand on the left to “transform” America from what it was, an extreme position that on the right has been met with a moderate effort to defend constitutional democracy and capitalism. “Partisanship” is not the correct word to describe this history: rather there is, on the one side, a continual assault on the American way of life, as most would define it, and, on the other, an earnest desire to defend it. 

Woodlief’s insistence on non-partisanship also reflects a mistaken conception of the role of parties within our democracy. It is primarily at the voting booth, not in fraternal organizations or small discussion groups, that citizens engage in self-governance. Individuals possess the ability to restrain government and set it on the right path simply by casting their vote every two years. The 2016 election of Donald Trump resulted from a number of factors, but above all it was a response to the dissatisfaction of millions of voters with the growing abuses of the political elite. One must ask which side is “extreme” when it comes to issues such as late-term abortion, religious freedom, business regulation, rates of taxation, funding of police and military, punishment of criminals, indoctrination at schools, and a host of other issues. Rather than two opposing sides equally at fault, what exists and has existed for decades is progressive extremism met with resistance from conservatives defending traditionally moderate positions. It is ironic that Woodlief quotes from Cass Sunstein as an expert on and critic of polarization, as if Sunstein himself had not been a close advisor to Barack Obama and had not published a book entitled Nudge, a virtual textbook on how to exert pressure on those who disagree with one’s position. 

I, Citizen is more convincing when it focuses on the undemocratic powers of federal agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service. One could just as well point to thousands of other agencies, each employing thousands of attorneys, agents, and armed officers and each engaging in rule-making beyond the control of elected representatives. Woodlief documents a number of cases of abuse, and he issues a stern warning about the dangers that the federal bureaucracy pose to democracy. Yet it is difficult to understand how one who opposes government overreach of this kind could fail to see that these regulatory abuses are closely tied to progressive politics or that conservatives have been battling agencies like Fish and Wildlife for decades. Conservative opposition to the expansion of government power is not partisanship: it is reasonable and constrained, and it deserves, and generally receives, the support of most thoughtful Americans. 

In sum, the author does not seem to realize that American democracy had been under assault from the left for decades and that the right has simply responded in defense of our constitutional democracy. It is not the case that both sides are drifting toward extremism. The idea that Ronald Reagan was proof that conservatives have been equally radical is false: there was nothing extreme about opposing communism, lowering tax rates, promoting small government, or defending the constitutional rights of citizens. 

Certainly, there are many points on which Woodlief’s analysis is informative and thought-provoking. Perhaps most important is his implicit warning that political division, if allowed to expand, may lead to secession and even civil war. Even now, there is a great deal of political violence in America, and I believe that every thoughtful person would agree with Woodlief that it needs to end. Yet America is not so much a “divided” nation as one in which left-wing activists are intent on transforming the country while conservatives defend values shared by most in the middle. It is conservatives who wish to abide by the Constitution, fund the police, defend religious liberty, and protect free speech and the right of assembly, and who defend traditional social values such as the rights of the unborn and biological gender distinctions. There is nothing radical about these conservative positions.

The fundamental problem with Woodlief’s thinking lies in its misguided theory of polarization. The reality is that only one side is extreme; the other defends the long-held consensus idea of America as a providential land of liberty and opportunity. A good example is Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” initiative, as the left has labeled it (actually, the “Parental Rights in Education” law includes nothing about not “saying gay”). There is nothing extreme about guaranteeing the rights of parents to decide how and what their children are taught, especially in the early grades, and nationwide, a sizable majority, including 55% of Democrats, support the bill. The deceptive manner in which progressives manufactured opposition to this commonsense legislation is typical of their political behavior, especially since the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most valuable point that Woodlief makes is that political division is thrust upon us by a political class that wishes to exclude ordinary citizens from governing and that, along with their endless array of “experts,” govern in defense of their own interests. I, Citizen makes a convincing case for the existence of the Deep State with its hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly devoted to the expansion of their own wealth and power at the expense of ordinary working Americans. The tentacles of this federal bureaucracy reach into the most far-flung regions of the country, and they are supported by some 130,000 armed federal officers. Time and again, innocent citizens have been caught up in unwitting violation of one or more of the 30,000 federal statutes and millions of agency rulings and regulations. Even those who make every effort to follow the law cannot avoid persecution since the interpretation of laws passed by Congress is left in the hands of faceless bureaucrats, and the interpretation is always changing. 

How does one oppose the explosive growth of federal power? Woodlief believes that Americans must turn away from partisan politics and participate in small-scale local associations such as church discussion groups and informal meetings at McDonald’s. This sort of discussion will then empower ordinary Americans to participate more actively and skillfully in local politics, assert state and local control, and eventually reassert self-governance. At the same time, Woodlief insists that these same citizens, the vast majority of whom he finds to be apolitical, must avoid the partisanship of modern political parties. In fact, the only way to regain self-governance is through involvement in just the sort of political activity that I, Citizen regards as partisan. By electing representatives at all levels, including the President, moderates can practice self-governance as the Founders intended. America will not be saved from the political elite by a public that wishes to heal division by withdrawing from partisan politics. 

In the end, I, Citizen is an interesting and readable book that contains many intriguing arguments. Readers can judge for themselves whether those arguments are convincing and whether the solution of localism is feasible. The author is undoubtedly correct in his belief that political division is growing and that it presents a danger to our future. It seems unlikely, however, that this division will be healed in the manner suggested. Perhaps only a crisis of the magnitude of the Second World War or the Great Depression will be enough to bring Americans together. As disagreeable as that sounds, it may be all that can restore our common identity as Americans, but even that would not be enough to unseat the enormous bureaucracy that wields more power every year. That task will require a long string of conservative presidents and congresses, and for that to happen, a majority must become loyal supporters of one political party. That, I believe, is not partisanship but democratic process as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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