True Value Of Citizenship

In “American Citizenship: The Quest For Inclusion” by Judith Shklar, she makes several arguments about citizenship as standing. Her two arguments focus on citizenship as voting and as earning. While I enjoyed Shklar’s essays I came to disagree with her on why citizenship is valuable. Shklar states that citizenship “value… was derived primarily from its denial” (16). In her use of history, she is correct that full citizenship was denied to a swath of groups, from black Americans to women. However, I disagree in the assertion that citizenship derives its value from exclusion. Citizenship has and always will derive its value from political power and capital.

This truth works within her historical evidence, but frames things in a much different light. White property owners didn’t have more value because others were excluded, they had value because they exercised their political capital. Yes others did not have it, but if they had and still chose to not exercise their right to vote, the effect would still be the same. Furthermore, if you take the example of two white males in the 1800s, both property owners, one voting and one not voting, it is clear which man’s citizenship has value. The voter may bind the non-voter. He may pass laws favoring his own causes and interest. Exclusion would simply exacerbate the lack of political power greatly, but exclusion itself is not what is giving value. It is the political capital that exclusion denies. In the same sense, a voter who does not vote does not have political capital. The only difference, although large, is that one is voluntary and one is not.

Of course, Shklar takes fun in mocking those who think a “good citizen” is one who is overly political. Some people do have different interest, however, a citizen who does not vote is giving up what the value of that citizenship means. Shklar, in making her argument about second class citizens states that “a second-class citizen is to suffer derogation and the loss of respectable standing” (17). What is someone who does not use their political power but a second-class citizen? The person who does not vote, does not use it’s true value is at the mercy not just majorities, but also factious, passionate minority groups who do not represent “mainstream” societal values. The tea party comes to mind. A group of passionate voters who most Americans tend to take issue with. A group who said no repeatedly to raising the debt ceiling, or inventing new revenue streams. This group of passionate voters exercised the true value of citizenship while others did not.

People are degraded when they do not vote, people are denied their interest. Our credit rating is lowered, capital is restricted and we have to wait for new representatives to be elected if we are unhappy with the one elected by passionate factions.

Finally, I want to address an issue I can see becoming a criticism Someone may argue that rights are protected when everyone is included in citizenship. Surely the lack of exclusion makes everyone equal and valued. Institutions, in their zeal for rights and protections will protect us all! The false idea that institutions alone can protect non-voters is flawed. People who do not use political capital are not protected perpetually by the Supreme Court or by the Executive. The Supreme Court must have Writs of Cert to hear cases, which can take years and the Executive’s interest seems to be primarily power and re-election. The Executive’s only political duty is to those who vote. A president may claim to be “above party and for America” but this is a falsehood. Politicians, always, always want to win. The height of the office is irrelevant.  Relying on the Supreme Court is even more of a crapshoot. By the time an even favorable decision is issued, the issue has long since been integrated into society. The Affordable Care Act, a controversial Obama Healthcare plan is, whether the voters like it or not, already ingrained into our society. 26 years olds on their parent’s plans, a (very real) potential increase in premiums and the new market system they establish are already being institutionalized, at least in part because the citizens who are a part of this country did not use their political power and citizenship value, they had their interest restricted by another group who was voting, who did recognize that the value of citizenship is political power. Ask unrepresented group in the last 200 years how well the Supreme Court has done in protecting their rights. If you do not vote, you are not represented.

TL; DR version: Shklar is right that people have been denied citizenship, but wrong that exclusion is what gives citizenship its value. Value derives from political power, this is clear both when numerous groups are denied the right to vote and when everyone is enfranchised. The ability of a passionate faction within society or even a small minority can structure and mold society how they please. In other words, even if you’re not the ideal Athenian Citizen, vote because it is the only thing that gives you power and your citizenship value. It will take years for an institution to rescue you, when legislation and your political capital will do it much more readily.

In other words, if you don’t vote:

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1 Response to True Value Of Citizenship

  1. lgeorge905 says:

    I think it’s entirely possible that you both are right. Sure, there are the obvious benefits to voting that you mentioned. And I certainly see the value in what Shklar wrote. I distinctly remember sitting around the dinner table when younger and watching my family debate politics. Whenever my grandmother (an immigrant without citizenship) would have a point to make, the reply was usually “yeah, but you can’t vote so it doesn’t matter”.

    I’m not sure about your view that institutions only protect voters. How about Miranda v. Arizona, the case that established that criminals must be informed of their rights? Or how about laws against the death penalty? And of course, the infamous Bush v. Gore decision that disenfranchised millions of Florida voters. I think institutions consider more than your voting status.

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