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Against Good Citizenship


In this blog post, CDE member Derek Edyvane writes on citizenship and democracy. 

First a confession: I am not a good citizen. You can rely on me to vote, most of the time anyway. And I try to keep up with the news, although more in a mood of morbid curiosity than public spirit. I’ve signed a few online petitions (who hasn’t?) and I’ve even participated in a protest march (we got tangled up whilst on a day trip to London). But that’s really it – the full extent of my ‘civic activism’.

I say this not because I take any pleasure in disappointing you. After all, you are probably not a very good citizen either. Robert A. Dahl, the great theorist of democracy, observed that against a standard view of what makes a good citizen remarkably few of us measure up:

Only a minority of citizens, it seems, is deeply interested in politics. Except for voting, even fewer actively engage in politics, whether by attempting to persuade others to vote for a candidate, working for a political party, attending political meetings and rallies, or joining political organizations. And in spite of a flood of easily accessible news and information, the average citizen’s knowledge of political issues and candidates is meager.

And this is commonly thought a problem. If democracy is rule by the people, then the people really need to be there (and not, say, down at the pub). A UK House of Lords Select Committee report from 2018 insists that citizenship ‘involves everyone in society acknowledging that politics is not a spectator sport and that top-down governmental interventions are, on their own, unable to build a flourishing democracy’. If we’re to address the social challenges we face, the report declares there must be ‘a nationwide effort where all people strive to become better and more committed citizens’.

As well-intentioned as these sentiments and associated civic initiatives have been, they have produced a troubling side-effect: the stigmatisation of the non-responders who I’m going to call the ‘ordinary citizens’. To see what I mean by this consider the example of Baratunde Thurston’s popular podcast series ‘How To Citizen’.

Thurston begins with a story of democracy in crisis and a sense of the urgency of the present moment: ‘our democracy is at a tipping point, but which way it tips is up to us’. And he invites his listeners to reclaim the idea of citizenship: ‘we believe in citizen as a verb, where we show up, where we participate in our democracy, invest in our relationships, know our power.’ The podcast weaves together the inspiring stories of civic activists, each episode setting exercises for listeners to help and encourage them to citizen better.

By ‘verbing’ the citizen in this way, Thurston identifies citizenship with action. But if citizen is now a doing word, then that must lead us to wonder about those who don’t. If citizenship is defined by activism, then what of those who fail to engage in activism: are they still citizens?

With this sort of public conversation ongoing, we should not be surprised if those who are actively involved in politics start to feel alienated from those who are not. The activists will say that ordinary citizens like me are idle free-riders who have only themselves to blame for their political marginalisation and lack of influence: ‘You should’ve shown up!’ to vote, to organise, to protest. Meanwhile, the ordinary citizens will start to resent the condescending attitude and outsized influence of the activists.

So emerges a distinctive kind of democratic polarisation, between a politically savvy elite and the rest. And, notoriously, this polarisation gets exploited by populist political movements claiming to represent the interests of ordinary people against the elite. Recall, for instance, UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s declaration that Britain’s departure from the European Union was ‘about ordinary people rising up to defeat the establishment’. Of course, there is much more to populism than just this phenomenon of democratic polarisation. Nevertheless, the stigmatisation of ordinary citizens plays a powerful role in underwriting contemporary social divisions.

In that sense, our efforts to improve democracy by bettering the citizenry have often been self-defeating. The greater our preoccupation with the pursuit and celebration of civic ideals, then the greater our disappointment at those who, despite our efforts, fail to live up to them. And the greater our disappointment, the stronger the tendency to polarisation and to the rise of anti-democratic movements cynically exploiting that polarisation.

I think we can change this narrative. In all that I have said, ‘ordinary citizenship’ is an absence rather than a presence. It is defined by what it is not: ordinary citizens are not the good citizens of our wildest democratic dreams. But what, then, are they? And where are they? What difference would it make if for once we were to investigate ordinary citizens on their own terms and on their own turf?

Here's a hunch. Active citizenship relies on a host of preconditions – political participation presupposes what we might call a civic infrastructure, an inclusive public culture that works as a kind of scaffolding, enabling activists to press their claims. That infrastructure is woven from the fabric of ordinary life, and building and preserving it is the neglected work of ordinary citizens.

On the ground of everyday living, this work won’t bear much resemblance to the activities we normally associate with good citizenship. Instead of rolling one’s sleeves up and getting involved, it will often look a lot more like ‘going with the flow’, like obedience and quiet conformity. It will sometimes even involve looking the other way as injustice is done, just standing there in what Erving Goffman called civil inattention. And even when it does involve dissent and resistance it won’t look much like the stuff of democratic myth: a multitude marching peacefully in unison, or a solitary hero speaking truth to power. Far from it, the everyday resistance of ordinary citizens is invariably small-scale, ramshackle, clumsy and rude.

We are so used to disparaging and disregarding this sort of thing that it can be hard to imagine reincorporating it into our vision of healthy democratic engagement. But I believe that we must. As the flow of water forms rivers brimming with vitality, so too the flow of ordinary life forms fertile physical and psychological space within which vibrant political activism can grow.

If there is something in this, then many questions follow. How exactly does the work of ordinary citizens feed a healthy democracy? How, as researchers, are we to investigate that work? And what difference does it make to the time-honoured subjects of democratic enquiry: to problems of rights, responsibilities and representation? How would democracy need to change in order for it to be made truly hospitable to ordinary citizens?

To be clear, I am not opposed to civic activism. I am not opposed to the mixture of activities we normally describe as good citizenship. Voting, organising, and protesting are all vital to a flourishing democracy. But I do insist that citizenship is multi-faceted and tremendously complex. It imposes an array of demands on us not all of which can be neatly reconciled and readily fulfilled. There is no way of getting it perfectly right all of the time. Good citizenship is a myth. And it is a damaging myth if it leads us to ignore or diminish the ordinary citizens who fail to measure up.

Don’t misunderstand: the rejection of good citizenship is not carte blanche for citizens to do as they please. I am arguing against good citizenship, but we should also be against bad citizenship. There is no way of getting citizenship right all the time, but there are all sorts of ways of getting it wrong! Citizenship is hard and it takes determined effort. My argument is that we should channel that effort to avoiding the many pathologies of citizenship instead of chasing the illusory glimmers of civic perfection.