Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

The Responsibility of Citizenship

We have heard a lot in the last couple of years—and even more in the last couple of days—about the challenge to the Constitution and our free institutions.  With momentum building for impeachment proceedings in the aftermath of the whistleblower complaint against the president, those concerns are rising, again.  The op-ed pages and the cable news channels are going to be full of breathless accounts of malfeasance, corruption, and violations of the Constitution.  Both sides will make these claims.  One side will be lying—and those lies are going to test not just the Constitution, not just our free institutions, but the most important player in our republic: the citizen.

That’s not hyperbole. The citizen is the most important part of the republic.  Not only does sovereignty rest with us, but it is we who will, in our collective response to events and facts, shape the actions of our government.  In a 1910 speech, President Theodore Roosevelt reflected on the vital role of citizens in a republic.  Where the fates of monarchies are determined by the quality of the king, he said, and the success of oligarchies by the quality of a small group of leaders, the fate of a republic is determined by the quality of its citizens.

In that speech, Roosevelt went on to celebrate the famed “man in the arena,” the person who steps forward to lead, who struggles with mighty issues, and who is defined by their ability to fight for what they believe—regardless of whether they succeed.  But it’s more than just action that we should celebrate. 

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, observed that “the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army.”  In that spirit, he wrote that if given a choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he favored newspapers, because they are a vehicle for informing the public.  To Jefferson, this was an essential feature of republican government and he urged the reader to “Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.”

With genuine respect for Roosevelt and Jefferson, their insights about the citizen are incomplete for 2019. They viewed citizens as participants to be led in a republic—and for me that makes the citizen far too passive a player in contemporary public affairs. 

We’re living in a world, now, where the availability of information is unprecedented.  The smartphone, seemingly always within an arm’s reach, makes more information than the world has ever known available at our finger-tips at any time.  Just as importantly, that same technology makes it possible for all of us to communicate our preferences to our elected leaders easily.  When you take these realities together, the citizen is more powerful, now, than she has ever been in the history of our republic.

I’ve long believed that Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, got it right when he observed that “with great power comes great responsibility.” And so we as citizens have homework to do.  It begins by staying truly informed. If we do anything with all the information at our fingertips this week, we need to take the time to read the memorandum of the phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine.  Don’t rely on your favorite talking heads to characterize it.  Don’t repeat ad hominem attacks.  Don’t spread talking points on social media.  Read the document yourself.  All of it.  The American citizen can think for him- or her-self, but we have to do the work of being truly informed and living up to the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship in the world’s oldest functioning republic.

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