University of Rochester

The Idea of Citizenship

The nation’s political culture needs the engagement of educated and committed citizens more than ever, notes a longtime observer. By Richard F. Fenno Jr.
Richard F. Fenno Jr.

In my second year of teaching political science, I was invited—with some other rookies—to my first conference to meet and listen to the leading professors of American politics. I remember only one minute of the conference—when the main speaker told us that he had discovered the idea that distinguished political science from all other disciplines.

When he said that, we rookies sat up straight and listened. “This idea is ours,” he said. “We own it.” Now we were on the edge of our seats. Then, after a pregnant pause, he uttered one word—“citizenship!” A big windup, a quick pitch, and much head scratching.

The idea of citizenship seemed important all right, I must have thought, but hardly likely to carry a full load of analysis and explanation in the field of American politics.

And yet I never forgot it. Why not? Because it has been important and useful to me as a student of American political life ever since. Inherent in the idea of citizenship are the notions of informed participation and thoughtful conversation. As someone who has followed this nation’s political climate for more than 50 years, I have seen those qualities steadily decline in recent years. As we enter the fall election season and prepare for the next presidential election in 2008, it’s important to reflect more carefully on the lessons of citizenship.

“We now have a multisided civic conversation that is increasingly oversimplified, shrill, combative, polarized, and self-perpetuating.”

Citizenship may seem to be a pretty cut-and-dried, technical, and legalistic subject. But my experience tells me otherwise. In 1975, I got an early lesson in the political side of citizenship. At the invitation of the Cuban government, I went to Havana and taught a short course on Congress to the English speakers in the Foreign Office of the Castro government. My passport was taken from me in Mexico, and the U.S. government had made it clear they would be unable to protect me. For eight days, I had no effective citizenship. My passport was returned only as I walked off Cubana Airlines in Jamaica. And I’ll remember forever the rush of relief when I touched British soil. Citizenship, I concluded, is not only a legal idea. It is a political idea—and a very emotional one, too.

Citizenship ceremonies here at home also carry similar emotions and teach large political lessons. In the late 1990s, I sat beside Congressman Chaka Fattah in a packed gymnasium in Philadelphia and watched 181 individuals from 32 countries raise their right hands, take the oath of allegiance, and become citizens. I watched them melt into a crowd of happy, supportive relatives and friends. And I heard several mention the word “vote.” They had made it into the public, political life of the country. Our nation’s politics has been reshaped over and over by waves of multicultural citizenship celebrations with the same upbeat spirit.

“My own favorite fantasy is to have the power to call a 24-hour national ‘time out’— no politics allowed.”

Three years ago in San Jose, California, I watched Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren preside over the citizenship ceremony of a former major in the South Vietnamese Army. He had saved the lives of three downed American airmen by pulling them from their burning plane and sheltering them. In combat, later, the major lost both his arms. He had come to America, but his efforts at citizenship had been stalled. At the behest of the American Veterans of Foreign Wars and of her large South Vietnamese constituency, Lofgren had sponsored a private citizenship bill and shepherded it through the Congress. Six TV cameras, a dozen newspaper reporters, a VFW contingent, and lots of Vietnamese friends and relatives were there. An INS official administered the oath. Then one of the airmen whose life the major had saved was piped in to tell the rescue story blow-by-blow over loudspeakers. Then the former major spoke. Everyone hugged and cried. Once again, a citizenship ceremony captured the promise of participation in American political life.

These experiences tell me that citizenship may not be the key to all political science. And we may not “own it.” But it is, for sure, one very big idea.

In my teaching, I began every undergraduate course in American politics by calling it “a citizen’s course.” My goal, I told each class, was to introduce them to the best scholarly research—to help them to become informed, critical, constructive consumers of—and participants in—our national political conversation. That conversation, I said, could be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the three nightly newscasts, and the PBS Newshour. I could be that specific because nearly all the country’s operative political conversation could be found in that handful of news outlets.

Graduation and Citizenship—
A Big Idea

In the life of a university, graduation ceremonies, too, are citizenship ceremonies. They reflect personal ambition; and they celebrate hard work and accomplishment. The ceremonies have a flavor of success and a feeling of optimism. We have proud families and warm friends, joyful celebrations, and the charting of new careers. Both ceremonies celebrate enlarged possibilities in American public life.

Speaking as a political science professor, I know that the requirements of a political science major (or another major) far exceed the requirements of legal citizenship. A college graduation celebrates an educational achievement that opens a much wider participatory window, and it focuses a set of expectations that are more demanding and more challenging.

As teachers, we don’t know where or how students will register their educational experience—in this country or abroad, in a nearby neighborhood, town, or city, in a public organization, a private association, or in the home. A diploma carries with it the assumption that graduates will participate somehow in the national political conversation. And, as teachers, we have tried to prepare students to improve that conversation. Graduation, like citizenship, exemplifies the optimistic and constructive side of American political life.

Like citizenship, graduation is a very big idea.

—Richard F. Fenno Jr.

Today, I would still teach “a citizen’s course,” but those few reference points—which served so well for 30 years, are now incredibly inadequate. Cable TV, DirectTV, talk radio, the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, The Daily Show, Fox News, blogging, and Googling have swarmed in to create a vastly more competitive and chaotic media-driven marketplace. They have generated a quantum increase in information sources which have, in turn, radically altered citizen political conversation—and citizen political activity.

We now have a multisided civic conversation that is increasingly oversimplified, shrill, combative, polarized, and self-perpetuating. It is driven by competition and it never stops. It sucks up all the civic oxygen needed to consider and construct compromise. The short-term swallows up the long-term. It magnifies our divisions and shrinks the prospects for agreement. It is all conflict all the time.

The media have no interest in getting things done, no interest in proposing—much less working for—solutions. The media are drawn to and live by controversy. They turn us into combatants who attack one another. And the word “hate” becomes commonplace in our vocabulary. My own favorite fantasy is to have the power to call a 24-hour national “time out”—no politics allowed. But we are surrounded, instead, by around-the-clock conflict. All this has made the job of citizenship harder than ever.

In which case, the challenge, as I see it, is to nudge the political conversation in a calmer, more measured, more constructive and, yes, more scholarly, more abstract direction. The tools to do that are the tools of a classroom: How to tell a good analysis from a bad one; how to examine values, recognize bias, evaluate evidence, test alternatives, interpret trends, assess data, and verify examples; how to specify the circumstances under which self-interest can be morphed into mutual gain.

I do not mean to eliminate partisanship. Far from it. Partisanship drives all democratic political systems. We value it, and we assume that you will act as partisans. What we teach, however, is not partisanship; we teach analysis. And we know that partisanship without analysis will fail.

In my view, the important thing is to keep America’s political conversation as calm, as constructive, as continuous, and as media independent as possible. That includes identifying and giving a positive constructive nudge to those politicians who most value negotiation and who work the hardest at coalition-building—in any party and at any level of government. To my mind, that is practicing citizenship in its finest form.

Go for it, fellow citizens, and good luck!

Richard F. Fenno Jr. is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus. This essay is adapted from his address at the diploma ceremony for political science majors at Commencement in May.