A few months ago, Bret Stephens wrote an essay in New York Times that included the following paragraph about what he–accurately– called the “classically liberal core of intelligent conservatism,” defined as:
The idea that immigrants are an asset, not a liability; that the freedoms of speech and conscience must extend to those whose ideas we loathe; that American power ought to be harnessed to protect the world’s democracies from aggressive dictators; that we are richer at home by freely trading goods abroad; that nothing is more sacred than democracy and the rule of law; that patriotism is about preserving the capacity to criticize a country we love while loving the country we criticize.
Well, how extremely “woke” of the Times’ conservative columnist…
I continue to be amazed–gobsmacked, really–by the complete 180-degree turn of a Republican Party that used to be serious about such old-fashioned ideas, along with “duty” and “responsibility.”
In January, Richard Haass published The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. While it once might have been seen as an exercise in “preaching to the choir,” these days, a depressing number of Americans are no longer members of that choir.
As the linked review begins,
It’s an idea as old as Rousseau: With rights come responsibilities toward the social contract. To this, Haass adds the admonition that “American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.” Those rights are constitutionally enumerated even if “the struggle over rights…continues to this day.” The obligations are less well enshrined, though the 10 Haass offers are unobjectionable. The first, echoing the right of freedom of speech and thought, asks that citizens be informed about how the government works and be prepared to participate in civic duties. On that second point, the fundamental obligation is to vote (and to insist on it when that right is impeded). “Voting is the most basic act of citizenship,” writes the author. “It creates a bond between the individual and government and between the individual and country.” Given a largely uninformed citizenry, that bond would seem tenuous, and it’s also conditioned by a lack of civility, which asks of each citizen a reasoned willingness to set aside ideology in order to deal with matters of shared concern or interest “on their merits, not on motives you may ascribe to those making the arguments.” Civility bespeaks a willingness to accept another obligation, which is to reject and repudiate violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6, 2021. Civility also feeds into the obligation to respect norms and the lessons of civics, such as the idea that the common good often overrules one’s selfish demands—e.g., being allowed to smoke in a crowded restaurant or walk around unvaccinated and unmasked in a pandemic. Sadly, of course, those who most need to read this agreeably thoughtful book likely won’t, but that’s the way of the world.
I am hardly the only observer of today’s rancid and decidedly uncivil politics to endorse the importance of re-emphasizing these obligations.
Rights–as Haass points out–imply duties. Your right to exercise freedom of speech, for example, imposes a duty on me (and especially on government) not to engage in behavior making that speech impossible. I don’t have to listen or agree; I am free to respond critically–but neither individual citizens nor government is free to censor you. (A/K/A “pulling a DeSantis.” ) When an individual citizen does so, it is unbecoming and, I’d argue, unAmerican; when government does so, it’s unconstitutional.
Haass does not limit the obligations of citizenship to the duties implied by our constitutional rights. He quite properly includes duties/obligations of democratic participation–especially informed voting.
The approaching national elections are very likely to be a turning point for this country. What is at stake is nothing less than our national commitment to America’s longtime–albeit still unrealized– aspirations to democratic self-rule, liberty and equality.
In 2024, the electorate will be faced with a deceptively simple question: will we continue to work toward realizing those aspirations? Or will we make a philosophical U-turn into White Christian Nationalism?
It really is as simple–and profound–as that.
I have absolute faith in the good will of most Americans. I remain convinced that–no matter how loud they are– the racists, anti-Semites and misogynists are a minority. What I worry about is the willingness of the majority of Americans to take their civic obligations seriously–to inform themselves, to ignore the incessant messaging that tells them their votes won’t count, and to turn out at the polls.
Good people need to vote like America depends on their ballots, because the version we and they want to inhabit really, truly does.