This paper is a little different, but probably appeals to the interests of more people. The assignment was to make an argument about what constitutes citizenship in the United States. My take is that citizenship is achieved when one willingly sets aside self-interest for the pursuit of the common good through governance.
Taking the Pledge: Membership in America
Introduction to American Political Thought
As each person recites the oath of citizenship, they become incorporated into the American body politick, imbued with the legal rights and responsibilities of a full member of American citizenship. The American community is a cohesive unit composed of political animals that are active in political and civic society in any number of ways. Though individuals are endowed with certain inalienable rights, it is by their active participation in society that they make them their own, claiming a stake in the society that preserves and protects their rights. A government for the people and by the people is dependent on an active populace that will participate in the governance of society. A democracy is by definition participatory, and as such, it requires that citizens invest themselves in political discourse. In return, a democracy promotes the best interests of the populace, working toward the basic rights that are incorporated into the common good. I believe that the ideal American political community is a united, homogenous group of people committed to pursuing the common good through voluntary participation in the body politick. Therefore, the republican values of the common good and participation are essential to any democratic union, and as such, should be the primary criterion for voluntary association with the American political community.
The Oath of Citizenship is a rite of passage for those newly included as members of the United States of America, and is a product of the republican tradition of American political thought. For those not granted citizenship in the United States by birthright, membership in the political community is still available. There is no legal universal standard for the Oath of Citizenship, but by law it must contain at least five specific components. First, each pledge must proclaim allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. Second, each pledge must renounce any allegiance to foreign governments or entities, signifying that membership within the United States supercedes any other past or present connection. By simultaneously pronouncing loyalty to the American government and renouncing loyalty to all others, the pledge shows the extent to which the political and social ideals of American thought should resonate with the individual self.
This oath symbolizes a commitment to rule of law and democracy, consistent with the values and ideas embedded in the government. The Constitution creates a union of states and individuals under one federal government, devoted to the national rather than individual good. To be American, one must feel an affinity with all fellow members of the national community, and a demonstrated allegiance to the principles and ideas of society signifies a commitment to the common good. Sacvan Bercovitch explains that American nationalism is a cultural consensus, whereby all members of the community are united in a common “conception of the future as the present.” Following the Revolutionary War, “Nation meant Americans, Americans meant the people, and the people meant those who, thanks to the Revolution, enjoyed a commonplace prosperity: the simple, sunny rewards of American middle-class culture” (emphasis original).
The first two components of the oath of citizenship serve to unify the body politick through the expression of faith in the community as a whole. Unity within the community belies the notion that the common good of society is more important than any one individual’s private self-interest. This hearkens back to the Puritan tradition from whence democracy came; namely, the tightly-knit community that pre-dated contemporary feudal notions of the state that never emerged in America. In this community, all members are inherently equal and strive for shared interests. In the words of Tocqueville, Americans enjoy “equality of conditions.” The American community should be filled with active participants, who, equal in dedication to the common good of society as a whole, will sacrifice self-interest for the general welfare. The oath of citizenship symbolizes the shedding of differences to join a homogenous community where all strive toward one common goal. As Louis Hartz proclaimed, the absence of a feudal history in America meant that people are born equal, and not retroactively made equal by government. All distinctions between people become irrelevant within the greater society, for each person in the political community is simply an American.
The third requisite component of the oath is a promise to defend the Constitution against all dangers. An individual life is of less import than the values of liberty and community embedded in the common good, the bedrock of membership in the American community. Fourth, each new member must promise to participate in the armed services if called upon by law, demonstrating a commitment to the security of the United States above all else, and again, the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the common good of the Union. And fifth, the oath requires one to perform other civic responsibilities required by law of members of the community, such as serving on jury duty. Participation is an important element of American political thought, and is thus embedded in the core of the Oath of Citizenship. This oath may be considered by some a mere performance, but there is no doubt that the tenets of the republican tradition permeate to its core, and that by taking the oath, one affirms the fundamental values and traditions upon which this nation was founded.
Though mere citizenship is the requisite standard for membership in the American political community, it carries several responsibilities that must also be met. Aristotle wrote that man is by nature a political animal, and that the highest human good is reached through political participation by those who are members of society. To rule and be ruled in return is to develop habits and ethics consistent with virtue and the common good. This requires a certain level of independence, which is ensured through republican values of education and security. The existence of the community as a homogenous group with both a stake in society and a unified common interest creates security. A unified community is free from the factionalism characteristic of self-interest, and instead promotes the application of the common good universally through its membership.
To become a citizen with full rights and privileges, one should become an active member of the body politick. This can be done in a variety of ways. Participation in government itself, either through running for office or voting, is an important responsibility of citizenship, though is not the only means by which one can participate. Civil society and religion are conduits for participation, and the voluntary association of individuals according to interests and beliefs is a valuable component of a democratic society. Service in society signifies a dedication to the principles of common good and communal well-being. Membership in the political community should be rooted in participation within it, either politically or civically. Without participation, a person has absolutely no stake in society, and therefore no interest in the common good.
Low rates of participation lead inevitably to a decline in moral virtue of citizens and the rise of self-interest and factions. When individual activity is centered on political power and commerce, self-interest takes precedence over the common good. Therefore, it is essential that all members of the political community remain active, striving for the benefit of all rather than self. In order to combat selfishness and ensure virtue, habits and mores must be inculcated through the education system, as advised by Tocqueville. The tradition of political theology stipulates that education is essential in inculcating the virtues and habits essential for good membership in a community. Habits and virtues are learned products of education, and must be applied toward the common good in order to stave off the corruption of the community, which can arise in several ways.
First, strict adherence to the tradition of political liberalism entails support of innate natural rights, both inalienable and undeniable. However, self-interest unavoidably leads to competition, rather than cooperation, between individuals. Strict liberalism thus erodes the common good through the pervasiveness of individual commercial interests. Because natural rights are so important, it is in the individual interest to limit the control of government over the private sphere. The government serves, therefore, merely to prevent members of society from destroying one another, and not to promote the common good through positive production. Second, external influences and commerce only serve to increase instability through the introduction of further diverse individual interests into a cohesive, homogenous community. According to political theologists, commerce is a corrupting influence on society because it instills the desire to accumulate wealth at the expense of others. Exposure to other groups of people through economic activity is therefore problematic, as commerce eventually leads to the erosion of common good as a foundation for society and government.
To combat instability caused by self-interest and commerce, education should be centered on the inculcation of common virtues and the belief in republican notions of the common good and civic participation. Though authoritarian, standard education requirements such as these ensure the stability of American society. In this way, indoctrination can be a useful means of ensuring that a society remains tied to equality and the common good. Tocqueville writes that common habits and mores related to virtue breed not only equality among all members, but sympathy and compassion as well, which facilitate the importance of the common good. Of course, the rise of factions and diverse interests in a large republic is unavoidable, so the government has been constructed in order to contain factionalism from infringing upon the common good. The system of checks and balances written into the Constitution inherently balance the emergence of eventual self-interested groups and individuals within government.
As Pocock notes, corruption must be avoided on the societal level through equality within virtue. Pocock’s notion of the virtuous includes only those men who own property, are deeply religious, and have attained some level of basic education. However, his definition of membership in society is somewhat flawed in a secular state. Religious affiliation is one form of participation in civic society, and when Pocock’s notion of citizenship is expanded, one can see that the important component of religion is the participation within it. Therefore, active participation within civil society, in conjunction with ownership of property and education, are sufficient means of membership in a republican society. Tocqueville observed that the prevalence of public space contributes to increased political discourse among the population, which generally leads to increased participation in governance. Property ownership also lends itself to increased political participation in two ways. First, property generates self-reliance, and frees an individual to work toward the common good without being dependent on individual commercial connections. Second, property ownership ensures that the owner has a stake in the security of the existing society under which the property is owned.
The origins of American political traditions reveal even more about society than a survey of present-day conditions. At the time of the Revolution, there existed two sharp distinctions between political life in Europe and America. Americans were politically active whereas Europeans were not, and Americans exerted tremendous control over their own daily life as a result of decentralized government. The values of participation and localized government were evident in the Declaration of Independence, which espoused the innate, natural rights of mankind, including equality and the entitlement to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. However, it retained republican and Puritan concepts of the decentralized community, arguing that the absence of hierarchy among citizens would lead to a virtuous, stable society. In the tradition of the jeremiad, the Declaration cites abuses of natural rights by the corrupt British government. Therein lays a tension within the liberal tradition. All humankind was created to be equal, but even government becomes susceptible to the whims of self-interest. This corruption led the colonies to declare their independence from the unvirtuous British government.
The Declaration reflected the liberal values of the individual. Britain had infringed upon the individual rights of the colonists, and in retribution, Americans announced their innate natural rights and came together as an aggregate of individuals to fight for freedom from tyranny. However, the political dynamic between individuals and society had changed greatly, and soon the Constitution presented a society constructed from one cohesive whole, rather than an aggregate of many parts. “We the People,” begins the Constitution, signifying the dramatic shift to a national consciousness tied to the common good of all members of society.
The brilliance of membership in American society is its flexibility. The Preamble to the Constitution, in declaring for the people universal beliefs and goals, establishes a common platform of values for membership that is entirely voluntary. The power of the Constitution lies in the voluntary submission to it. The political theology tradition believes that membership in the congregation - though a privilege - is voluntary. Reflecting the free will of mankind that is intrinsic to the origin of America itself, American citizenship operates through voluntary association. Max Weber, in discussing the political theology tradition of religious sects in America, highlights the importance of voluntary association. Members of religious sects have proven their virtue and commitment to the communal good before acceptance, but the decision to associate with a group is not compulsory. Seymour Martin Lipset characterizes the sectarian nature of religion in America as exceptional due to its voluntary, participatory nature.
The freedom of association in all things, great and small, placates the public, and ensures that self-interest never overtakes the common good. In other words, freedom of association not only benefits the common good, but also ensures security. Tocqueville writes, “If you perceive Americans on all sides working without relaxation in the execution of some important and difficult design that the least revolution could confound, you easily conceive why people so well occupied are not tempted to trouble the state or to destroy a public repose from which they profit.” The evident conclusion of Tocqueville is that a busy population is a happy population. However, Tocqueville notes well that this notion can be dangerous for two distinct reasons. First, when government requires compulsory associations, the people are held captive. One must only remember the phrase Arbeit macht Frei in order to understand the danger of carrying out this practice.
Second, Tocqueville notes that the European fear of free association was rooted in the notion that factions in favor of revolution would inevitably emerge. The exceptionalism of the United States lies in the ability of the population to, “within the political associations that Americans of all conditions […] get the general taste for association […] and familiarize themselves with its use. There they […] understand each other, and in common become animated for all sorts of undertakings.” He concludes that the freedom of association in America has “passed into habits and mores.”
Though the two prerequisites of membership, commitment to the public good and active participation in society, must be met before being considered a full member of the community, the eventual association with the American state is entirely voluntary. A new immigrant to America is given the opportunity to decide when and if he or she will apply to become a citizen, and all residents in the United States have the opportunity to become active members in the American body politick, but are not compelled to do so out of necessity. Americans are also free to leave the state, so long as they find another to accept them. In this way, the voluntary association to the American political community is an important and essential component of what it means to be a member, and a vital contributor to the maintenance of American security.
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