An American’s Guide to Citizenship

What images flow through your mind when you think of power? You may conjure lightbulbs and circuitry, perhaps engines combusting and horses pulling loads, or even militarized police and weaponized armies. Your initial response illustrates how often you’re thinking about social power and its forms. Unfortunately, many people don’t quite see are the near-invisible networks of power woven throughout our society. We may see the physical consequences of power but rarely do we see the various threads binding each of us together. Start by looking at your own life for inspiration. Any aspect of our life is subject to a power relationship: politicians deciding what’s lawful, police officers enforcing that law, parents establishing acceptable behavior for children, bosses deciding workplace routine, and even newscasters subjectively deciding what’s newsworthy. We all have power in some shape or form but many of us have trouble recognizing it. This is my attempt at helping you recognize your potential. What power do you have?

As citizens of a democracy, given power through the majority rule, we have enormous responsibility wed with unbelievable power. We collectively decide who fills the positions of the highest offices throughout our society, both local and federal. This is a truly remarkable turning point in human history when considering all the tyrannies, dictators, and monarchs that came before. But, has anyone ever asked what makes a good citizen? What are their qualities and aspirations? My father once told me that voting is the most important thing any citizen can do, this same sentiment was echoed by my 2008 high school civics teacher. In class, we spent a lot of time learning how our votes fill the offices of two of three branches of government, with our choice serving as the ultimate check against corruption. Unfortunately, something was left out of these conversations. For a country priding itself on being the oldest living democracy, America has a terrible voter turnout especially compared to other democracies. This becomes a huge problem if our idea of citizenship is entirely predicated on voting. When considering the cause of low turnout, our first assumptions typically vilify the citizenry. I find this vilification particularly troublesome because traditionally Americans are hardworking, patriotic, and take pride in their freedom of choice. How are we supposed to reconcile supposedly bad citizenship with these powerful ideological traditions? I think it’s more appropriate to put the electoral process on trial before condemning our neighbors to the punishments of slothful indulgence. The electoral process, which I hope to show you, is inherently disheartening and disempowering to the many voters involved. Additionally, these feelings felt by voters are absolutely contrary to what Americans believe the electoral process should be. Before I proceed, I want to be explicitly clear, this is not a condemnation of voting. Rather, this is meant to redefine our basic assumptions of civic engagement.

The following list of concerns is far from comprehensive, but I hope you can see the trap created for citizens defined solely as voters:

We are given two political parties and only one choice. In this regard, America is somewhat of an anomaly when compared to the rest of the world and on a philosophical level, this idea runs into conflict. Picture two balls floating in space, without a third point of reference, it is impossible to determine which of the two is moving away from the other. In this same way, third-party candidates show the point of departure for major political parties.

This leads to the criminalization of third-party candidates participating in the electoral process. These candidates are forcibly excluded in a variety of ways, but my emphasis here is on debates. Through steep preliminary entry requirements and even their forceful removal, third-party candidates are barred from participating in the electoral process.

The electoral college has stolen five elections after electing candidates not receiving the popular vote. While being overly complicated and appearing to be highly anti-democratic, the electoral college truly is an arcane puzzle that has an intimate history serving our most hideous institution, slavery. Despite this history, the mere presence of this electoral machinery is disingenuous to any voter involved in the process because their vote can be taken away at, seemingly, any time.

Election day is still not a national holiday and only some states demand that employers offer paid time off to vote. This creates enormous conflict for any voter who supports themselves or their family.

The Democratic National Committee has defended themselves in court saying they have the right to rig primary elections for the candidate of their choice despite popular approval for another candidate.

The Citizens United supreme court case has labeled campaign contributions by corporations as free speech turning everything on its head. This case effectively allowed the unlimited financing of campaigns by those with the wealth to do so, consequently compromising the integrity of any elected official using these corporate financiers.

This quick video breaks down just how impactful this case is (seen below).

Many states around the country rely entirely on electronic voting machines which should worry anyone wanting fair elections. These machines are developed by 3rd party vendors that don’t release source code for the machines, effectively shrouding the tabulation in secrecy. Additionally, these machines have been proven to be incredibly easy to hack and are particularly vulnerable to a staggering array of foreign influence through various means.

Finally, voter suppression is prevalent throughout our election cycles including complex voter registration barriers and inaccessible voting facilities, but most importantly is this Republican tactic called interstate cross-check which removed up to a million voters from the rolls in 2016 alone.

This list is far from exhaustive, but it serves as a good gloss to challenge the basis of what we believe is a good citizen. I’m not trying to diminish the value of voting in elections, I think that even in unfair elections voting serves as a rallying cry and a great barometer for public enthusiasm. When citizenship is solely defined around a task performed every four years we become the one-dimensional citizen. Compound this narrow interpretation with a deeply flawed electoral process and you have the recipe for the disheartened and apathetic citizen.

When elections don’t go our way, which they often do on any side of the spectrum, we are rendered powerless. This narrow definition makes us non-actors in the society we are tasked with shepherding. Compounding this problem are the elementary and secondary schools boiling down civics into a delineation of branches of government, memorization of presidents, states, and capitals, and a brief and sterilized overview of our nation’s history. By the time students graduate high school, they have been taught a form of pseudo-civic knowledge. This knowledge doesn’t provide the skills necessary to build strong relationships in communities or, at the very least, confidence and know-how to debate ideas that are worth sharing. It is important to recognize that this analysis isn’t meant to discredit education, instead, it is precisely what we need to expand the definition of citizenship. The current problem with civics education is that students spend a great deal of mental energy on subjects that most of them will have forgotten by the time they exit the school system.

The next question is, what happens when our elected officials systemically work against our interests as a society? When a citizen’s power is entirely channeled into voting our response to threats teeters on the abyss of powerlessness. The only power we have left, after the votes have been cast, is to defer responsibility unto others and that’s not citizenship. We blame the other party, we blame the foreign actors, and we blame each other, i.e. voter shaming. These aren’t healthy responses to genuine concerns in our communities. Fortunately, a recent study has shown that we don’t actually live in a democracy, it’s more of an oligarchy with the illusion of elections. This study statistically proves that our elected officials, throughout history, look to enact the policy of the wealthy and the affluent, citizens only getting their way if they are aligned with the powerful. Therefore, we now have an opportunity to truly confront the many layers of one-dimensional shrouds covering our eyes and holding us back. We may not have a true democracy, and we probably never will, but we should aspire towards that lofty goal because democracies live and die with public appeal. Therefore, citizenship isn’t just about voting and instead should be thought of as one fundamental component of a healthy democracy’s diet. I believe that power is an important part of the citizenship diet and that many of us haven’t been formally introduced to this line of thinking. In my upcoming series on power and citizenship, I want to unpack what power is, what it looks like, the consequences of any imbalance and what power citizens have in shaping society. In a democracy, any citizen should feel empowered and incentivized to engage in their communities and governments. Unfortunately, I believe that the low voter turnout speaks to the powerlessness and disengagement of voters in our society-shaping processes, e.g. grassroots movements, local government, and community organizations.

I want to have an honest discussion about what citizenship means, what powers we have, and how we can empower other citizens to do the same. More importantly, this discussion becomes increasingly necessary in a society that changes as quickly as ours compounded by rampant wealth inequality. So please, stick along for the ride and stay tuned for my next installment coming soon!


World traveler, life-long learner and freelance writer.

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