Citizenship in Liberal Democracy
The idea of liberal democracy awkwardly combines two very distinct ideas into a larger normative project. Liberalism and democracy align in their values, but they diverge in their approach to citizenship. In a democracy the citizen becomes central to government. The people become sovereign. However, liberalism asserts the need to protect people from their government. In other words, liberalism portrays government as an imposition upon people , while democracy idealizes the people as governors.
The idea of citizenship is often ignored in accounts of liberal democracy because it exposes an incongruity between liberalism and democratic governance. So, a recent book from Sara Wallace Goodman, Citizenship in Hard Times, becomes remarkable because it wrestles with these thorny concepts. She recognizes the challenge in her project when she writes, “We are – at the same time – engaged and demobilized; composed of democratic and illiberal impulses. An active and engaged citizenry can simultaneously buttress and undermine the foundations of democracy.”
Her work is all the more remarkable, because she approaches the idea of citizenship through comparative political analysis rather than theory. Her work adds to the growing literature that explores the attitudes of citizens about democracy. However, she breaks from the work of Ronald Inglehart, Pippa Norris, among others in learning attitudes about citizenship in a democracy. It’s a fascinating study with many implications for democracy moving forward as democratic governance experiences threats like severe polarization. As she makes clear, “The puzzle here is how democratic threats that are not inherently partisan can become partisan because of positional incentives.”
How Citizens View Citizenship
The problem in democratic governance is fundamentally mathematical. It promises influence to its citizens through different methods of participation including elections. At the same time, however, it dilutes the influence of each citizen through the expansion of the electorate. In other words, nobody feels as though they have any influence because everybody’s portion is so small. Bo Rothstein explains, “The paradox is that whereas electoral democracy is hugely successful on the global level, especially considering the number of countries that have introduced some variant of this system and (not least) as a normative ideal, the citizens who actually live in countries that practice the system are less and less satisfied with its actual workings.” Democracy offers an alluring promise, but too often people find it disappointing in practice.
The problem with democratic disappointment for me centers around blame or fault. Many place the blame on politicians or institutions as though others impose government upon us. However, Goodman disagrees with this fatalistic worldview. She believes “individuals as citizens are not passive receivers of elite actions and decisions, but agenda-setters, legitimacy-conferrers, and custodians of the soft guardrails preventing backsliding.” But this raises an important question. What do we expect from citizens for democracy to succeed? Goodman explores this idea through survey analysis of citizens in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. She asks people in different countries about their obligations and duties as citizens.
Among her findings, Goodman finds citizens in these countries largely accept liberal values important for democratic governance. Indeed, Americans frequently embrace citizenship obligations more strongly than their European counterparts. Despite an environment of widespread polarization, Americans largely believe a good citizen “accepts diversity,” “is patient,” and helps “people worse off than yourself.”
Now so far Goodman has found citizens in Western Democracies hold typically Western liberal values. This is not too surprising. However, she draws a distinction between what she calls hard times. During hard times citizenship devolves into partisanship. People become divided rather than united. As a consequence, notions of citizenship take a backseat to partisan inclinations. At the same time, the source of hard times does not have a partisan origin. She notes, “The puzzle here is how democratic threats that are not inherently partisan can become partisan because of positional incentives.” So, partisanship for Goodman becomes a response to democratic challenges that exacerbate the dangers rather than an independent cause on its own.
Moreover, partisan responses can create a cycle or loop that reinforces partisan behavior. Lee Drutman has referred to this phenomenon as the two-party doom loop. He writes, “Once the parties polarize in a two-party system, polarization becomes a self-reinforcing dynamic…. The more extreme the other party, the more vindicated your side feels in taking strong, even radical, action in response.” At the same time, today’s illiberal threat is different from the past. Goodman finds, “In the US, we observe impatience among incumbent supporters while in Germany we see it among opposition supporters.” Typically, those outside power experience frustration with democracy. This is called the “Loser’s Dilemma.” It becomes dangerous when those in power experience frustration with democracy, because it empowers those with undemocratic sentiments. Some scholars have begun to refer to this new phenomenon as a “Winner’s Dilemma.”
Unfortunately, Goodman does not offer a roadmap to navigate out of hard times. Indeed, she recognizes, “Partisan citizenship makes solving problems more difficult because the solutions themselves become politicized.” It’s unclear how hard times find resolution. Does it depend solely on citizens or is institutional reform necessary? Perhaps the Progressive Era provides some parallels. Citizens did not simply demand changes in policies, but championed institutional reforms to make those policies possible. So, the answer is probably both rather than one or the other.
Democratic renewal ultimately depends on citizens. Not only do they determine the norms and customs, but they can also actively contribute to democratic breakdown. “Citizens,” according to Goodman, “have the power to defend democracy or deliver autocracy.” It’s a refreshing perspective on citizens. Too often scholars describe them as hapless victims of elites and institutions. Democracy does not become democratic until citizens hold the key to its future. This reality offers genuine hope even when we find ourselves living in hard times.
Listen to Sara Wallace Goodman share insights from her book, Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat, tomorrow on the Democracy Paradox podcast.
Nancy Bermeo (2016) “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy
Mollie Cohen, Amy Erica Smith, Mason Moseley, and Matthew Layton (2020) “Winners’ Consent? Citizen Commitment to Democracy when Illiberal Candidates Win Elections,” American Journal of Political Science
William Galston (2017) “The 2016 U.S. Election: The Populist Moment,” Journal of Democracy
Sara Wallace Goodman (2022) Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat
Robert Kauffman and Stephan Haggard (2021) “The Anatomy of Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy
Bo Rothstein (2009) “Creating Political Legitimacy: Electoral Democracy Versus Quality of Government,” American Behavioral Scientist
Doh Chull Shin and Hannah June Kim (2018) “How Global Citizenries Think about Democracy An Evaluation and Synthesis of Recent Public Opinion Research,” Japanese Journal of Political Science
Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy (2018) “Déjà vu? Polarization and Endangered Democracies in the 21st Century,” American Behavioral Scientist
Milan W. Svolik (2020) “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science