SOTU 2013 Reactions: Can Obama's Remarks On Citizenship Resonate With the Modern American?

President Obama has been talking an awful lot about citizenship lately, and it's not going to do him any good.

“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course,” he said in his second inaugural address last month “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.” 

During the State of the Union speech, the president went even further in his discussion of citizenship, stating, “We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of the United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

But what will it mean to be citizens in the next great chapter in the American story?  What does it mean to be a citizen in the first place? To answer that question, it may be helpful to look at what being a citizen meant to civilizations both ancient and modern.

To the ancient Greeks, citizenship was everything. Though citizenship was extremely restrictive as compared with modern democracies, each Greek was fiercely loyal to his city-state, or polis. Though city-states such as Sparta and Athens were radically different both legally and culturally, the citizen viewed his freedom and rights as completely wrapped up within the polis in which he lived. This fierceness of valuing the freedom of the city explains why Xerxes, the king of Persia who invaded the Greek peninsula, could not believe how bravely the Greeks fought to defend their territory, even though they were incredibly outnumbered by the vast Persian army. 

Rome was very much like the Greek city-states, where a premium was placed on citizenship and civic life over individual economic pursuit. The Romans, as we can gather from the writings of Cicero, were fiercely ambitious people in the public sphere, though only those with Cives Romani, full citizenship based on gender and place of origin, could harbor any aspirations to high office. 

But where the Romans diverged from the Greeks was in their tiered definition of citizenship, which allowed them to expand their empire. By granting some form of citizenship to the inhabitants of territories they conquered, the Romans were able to assimilate, to varying degrees, their enemies and spread their influence across the known world.

Though the Greeks and Romans had some differences over the legalese of citizenship, they did not differ on the view of civic life as the highest ideal. Their rights were wrapped up with the city, whether it was Athens, Sparta, or Rome. This idea of rights being more than just individual, but collective, is something President Obama was alluding to, in saying that “our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.” But does this idea truly resonate with the modern mind as it did with the ancient one?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. The difference between the ancient and modern versions of civic life was elucidated no better than by Benjamin Constant in his 1819 essay De la liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes (“The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns”).  In this essay, Constant explained why it was possible for the ancients to be able to have such an active form of citizenship, whereas the moderns cannot.  He alluded to the fact that ancient cities were generally very small and homogeneous, and had slave populations to do the hard labor, which allowed for a robust participatory democracy to enfold. By contrast, modern republics are much larger and less homogeneous, facts alone that would render the participatory democracy of Athens almost impossible to achieve in modernity. But the real driver of the modern inability to have an ancient form of citizenship is the emergence of commercial society.  With the abolishing of slavery, not only do people have less time to devote to civic matters because of the need to earn a living; they also have more distractions available to them in the commercial sphere.

This last point truly resonates with regards to citizenship in 21st century America, and, indeed, the rest of the world.  Constant was prescient to see the influence of commercial society on citizenship during a time when commercialism was in its infancy.  Today, commercial society has truly blossomed into a state in which people have infinite ways to be distracted from the burdens of civic life and the duties of citizenship. Not only do we have work that is becoming increasingly taxing on the 21st century person. We also have Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other ways to entertain ourselves, to the detriment of civic life.

President Obama is hitting a hopeful note by thinking we can return to some form of the ancient life of collective rights and duties. I just don’t think he’ll be able to reach the minds of people whose eyes are too busy looking at iPhones.