The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life

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Citation: Michael Schudson (1998) The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life.

Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), participation (RSS), civic values (RSS), history (RSS), united states (RSS), political history (RSS), citizenship (RSS), public opinion (RSS), civil rights (RSS)


How has the American imagination of what it means to be a citizen changed over the years? In The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson argues that the United States has gone through four eras of different ideas of citizenship:

  • assent (1690-1865): where citizens assented to the views of elites
  • affiliation (1865-1920): where citizens participated in competition between parties
  • informed citizen (1920 to present): where informed individual citizens were expected to make good voting choices
  • rights-bearing citizen (civil rights era to present): where interest groups and social movements carried out campaigns that leveraged the legal system to create changes in the rights of citizens


To carry out this analysis, Schudson focuses on "the basic rules of political practice," the laws and procedures that govern political participation. Schudson also focuses on the "conventional patterns of public electoral activity" in the United States.

Colonial Origins of American Political Practice

In this chapter, Schudson offers an overview of the kinds of political institutions and participation that existed across colonial America, arguing that the politics of the time was mostly based around the idea of deference to elites and tracing the development of new institutions and networks preceding the American revolution. Across the colonies, argues Schudson, the political culture was consuensus based, deferential to elites, monarchic, rooted in values of property, in a context of limited government compared to England, and existing primarily in oral, dramatistic modes, with a growing print culture.

The institutions of American political life in this time included the consensus-oriented town hall meeting in New England or Rhode Island, a deferential election system that "reaffirmed the leading gentlemen's right to govern" (22), the monarchy as an entity held in check by the public will, seasonal political positions that signaled status as much as power, and a growing printing business that supported pamphlets and newspapers (32). Especially from the mid 18th century, these newspapers were increasingly connected by an intellectual network of newspapers, with articles like Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania amplified and spread across multiple newspapers (41), and pamphlets like Payne's Common Sense spreading through the post, including the alternative postal network set up by the Continental Congress (43). These papers were also connected by the network of college education, with students from Yale and elsewhere maintaining conversation across the colonies.

As the colonial period concluded, Schudson argues that along with the loss of monarchy and the retention of elite-focused politics came a lessening in the focus on consensus and a greater emphasis on Madisonian values of contention: "no longer was it easy to imagine that deliberation might lead to consensus" (45).

The Constitutional Moment

In this chapter, Schudson follows early develompents in the United States around the participation of citizens, from the creation of the constitution through the end of John Adams's presidency. He argues that early American political thought focused on the mechanisms of representation and had little place for civil society, over time seeing it as a dangerous necessity.

Civil Society versus Representative Mechanisms: When describing the Constitutional Convention, Schudson focuses on the lack of transparency and the emphasis on rules of order in closed meetings "as a shelter and protection to the minority" (53), even as delegates invoked the public in their arguments. He also describes the private associations of the time (like Democratic-Republican clubs) that committed themselves to educating the public about their political rights and opportunities and set out to hold power accountable --early civil society oranizations. These societies were seen as threats by the Federalists, who saw them as attempts to create alternative authority that could undermine a government well architected for representation. At issue was the question of whether "the mechanics of government were complete in themselves" were sufficient. Schudson outlines the major views of Washington and Madison and how they later played out in the Federalist papers.

Schudson also outlines the role of this debate in fostering proto-political parties between federalist and republican groups, primarily by noting the interrelations between viewpoint-focused newspapers, the postal system, and political parties-- illustrated by the battle between the National Gazette and the Gazette of the United States.

Schudson reviews the notion of "the informed citizen" at this point in U.S. history. While politicians argued that the system of government included important accountability to the public, they often limited public access to information. Schudson argues that at the time, institutions of information like newspapers and education were seen as systems to spread the established order rather than educate critical thinkers (71-2). Nor was there a notion of a "free press," an argument Schudon goes to gret length to establish in detail (73-77).

Finally, Schudson examines the process of elections. Federalists saw campaigning as unbecoming (80), while republicans actively courted voters. Underlying this was a debate about the nature of representation; were small groups preferable or large ones, and how should districts be drawn? "Should representatives merely channel the views of constituents or should they make up their own minds about the public good of the nation" (83)? Notably, "Madison argued that the higher ratio could be a blessing for popular control. He argued that the relationship of citizen and representative is a two-way street, and that if a smaller constituency can better control a representative, a representative can also better tyrranize a smaller constituency," also arguing that larger districts meant greater diversity of ideas, leading to greater contention and more protections against the abuse of power (85)

Across all this debate, Schudson argues, is the sense that a healthy democracy is defined through the mechanisms of the political system rather than the qualities or capacities of the citizens, an idea that was to come much later (87-89).

The Democratic Transition in American Political Life

Schudson argues that the 19th century leading up to the American Civil War marked the transition awy from deference and towards organization. The norms of deference (such as firstborn inheritance) were disappearing, a public school movement was growing, and Christian groups organized large-scale political struggles, leading to the emergence of the political party in the U.S..

Schudson examines these developments through the development of state constitutions (which strengthened Van Buren's position by widening the vote) and of voluntary associations, especially those organized around sabbatarianism and anti-slavery causes, with side references to professional societies. He takes particular note of the growth of missionary and benevolent societies at the end of the last century, which activists then attempted to convince to spread their ideas to their members. Schudson argues that the spread of abolitionist material (between 1833 and 1837, over 950 abolitionist societies were created) fostered early examples of an American public sphere. Abolitionist pamphlets and newspapers were limited by state governments and post offices, who censored abolitionist material, to much debate. Abolitionist petitions were subject to a series of "gag" rules in congress, where they were not even allowed to be read-- rules that were opposed by John Quincy Adams and that attracted greater support to abolitionist causes. Notably, women participated widely in petitions and the sharing of women's voices was defended by Adams, who argued that they had an important influence on voters (98-109).

Schudson argues that "the most enduring organizational development of this period, and the one that would later be identified as a central and defining feature of American democracy, was the political party." He argues that parties were notable because they represented rivals for power who would act as a respectful opposition rather than warring factions attempting to defeat the other at all costs. These parties, unlike voluntary associations "did not originate as local organizations" and were candidate-centered, especially from the campaign of 1840, where parties organized around presidential candidates and turnout was higher than ever before (111-114).

Finally, Schudson follows the story of the press in this period, amidst growing literacy (with schools and libraries), reduced costs of production (and the invention of the penny press), where a half of American households were receiving newspapers by the 1820s (119), though most news was not local (124). When local news did become more prominent mid-century (125), local news was seen as focused on community rather than politics. With the cost of production reducing, the idea of a politically independent press was proclaimed but not yet practiced. Party newspapers set out to support existing communities; while the penny papers bragged about presenting all sides and avoiding knowledge of who its readers were (123). Notably, the press became an important amplifier and sharer of the oratory of notable politicians (126-28).

The emergence of political parties and the focus in the press on oratory participated in the rise of vocational politics, claims Schudson, where professionals would rise through party ranks to become a recognized speaker and political professional (130)[1].

By the end of the chapter, Schudson calls parties--not newspapers-- the "fourth branch of government, responsible more than any other institution for the political education and mobiliation of the voting population out of doors, and for the creation of a functioning leadership inside the legislatures and halls of Congress" (132).

The Public World of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In this mini-chapter, Schudson critiques the way that people hold up the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a paragon of American civic action. He argues that many contemporary citations of these debates are highly revisionist, drawing from newspaper sources at the time.

The Second Transformation of American Citizenship

The late 19th century, which marked the highest levels of civic participation in American history, are often ignored, mostly due to the transformations that followed it, argues Schudson. In this period, citizenship was rooted in community/party affiliation and personal interest, an experience that was replaced with the idea of the informed individual citizen in efforts to professionalize the civil service and end corruption.

In the late 19th century, voters could expect personal benefits each time they voted, from payment for votes to jobs. In New York City, up to 36% of those who voted for Tammany mayoral candidates were given jobs in the government (147). During this period, parties got their funding by taxing roughly 3% of income from patronage jobs (152). This changed in the US and elsewhere due to an international movement for civil service reform, which took place in the UK, Prussia, and Canada at roughly the same time as the United States. In this model, government services were run by the best person for the job, with less turnover. The impact, argues Schudson, was to remove a major motivation for participation and accountability: "not only did parties become less important to citizens; citizens also became less important to the parties" (153). Without the salary contributions, parties turned to wealthy donors instead of citizens for their funds.

Schudson documents other declines in the role of party, from a reduction in the role of party festivals, barbecues, and parades to the rise of non-party voluntary societies and pressure groups. Schudson links this with a transformation in community life supported by growing cities, stretching mobility, greater variety in interest-based societies, and nativist reactions to immigration, all of which further eroded the role of political parties.

In this context, Vote buying in elections run by the parties, the primary campaign expense in the 1880s(163), gave way to the secret ballot. Schudson identifies the secret ballot with a new idea of citizenship, where voting "became a performance of individualism oriented to the nation, not a performance of community directed to the locale," in a "citizenship by virtue of informed competence" (173). In this context, the independent newspaper, with innovative genres like the interview, become more prominent, the tool through which the informed citizen cultivates the intelligence required for citizenship, in contrast with a former focus on loyalty.

"All told, the new model politics increased the demands on the citizen. Those who would vote needed more information to cast a ballot than the loyal partisan of the 19th century. They needed to be more self-starting to go to the polls at all since doing so was increasingly detached from the rewards of fraternal social life [....] government services grew less connected to elected officials [....] reform... removed a manifest level of self-interest from the citizen's relation to politics" (185)

Cures for Democracy? Civil Religion, Leadership, Expertise-- and More Democracy

In this chapter, Schudson describes the transition into modernity, what Wallas called "the Great Society" [2] of advadvanced capitalism. This era is marked by social programs, taylorist efficiency in government, the rise of the expert, presidents as the locus of politics, and growing doubts about the possibility of informed citizenship, in light of public opinion.

Voter turnout declined in the 1920s and onward, leading Walter Lippman to to argue in Public Opinion(1922)[3] that citizens could not realiably "see and judge the world" due to their own "distortions of will and desire" (191). In particular, many were concerned about the influence of broadcast propaganda, public relations, and lobbying.

In contrast with fears of propaganda, newspapers moved towards professional reporting and NGOs emphasized their non-partisanship.

In government, Schudson highlights a transition towards presidential leadership, as the federal government expanded regulations and public services under the executive control of the president. Another transition included a greater focus within the civil service on career experts, above party politics or "hidden influence" (211). This belief in experts was supported by Lippman's fears about irrational publics misinformed by the press (213). This view was challenged by Dewey, who argued that rule by experts was oligarchy and that local, face-to-face community was its antidote-- arguments that Schudson does not see as a viable or enduring alternative (215).

Universities, foundation-funded think-tanks, and "private bureaus of 'efficiency'" were some institutional responses to this government of experts that emerged in the early 20th century, with policy replacing politics. Schudson also highlights efforts to build community centers like libraries and meeting places in urban areas. Schudson argues that these efforts never gained national influence.

Opinion polls, argued George Gallup, offered "a practical way of learning what the nation thinks" more frequently than elections[4]. He puts forward polling as "a new instrument which may help to bridge the gap between the people and those who are responsible for making decisions in their name." He makes a powerful statistical argument that not every citizen need be informed about all the important issues. Instead, "Democracy... requires merely that the sum total of individual views add up to something that makes sense"[5].

Widening the Web of Citizenship in an Age of Private Citizens

Here, Schudson argues that politics shifted away from presidents and onto lawyers and issues of rights following the civil rights movement. This has been accompanied by three mutually reinforcing parts: "the expansion of government, the proliferation of rights, and the intensification of private social life" (242). Schudson argues that many of the wider changes in ideas of citizenship have accompanied a restructuring of society where Americans have more choice over decreasingly-connected spheres of life, as we drive to a variety of workplaces and communities and stay inside our private homes.

The primary change in our notion of citizenship, argues Schudson, is derived from the era of civil rights, and a series of legal cases that made supreme court cases enforceable against state law (246): "until 1937 citizens could seek to influence the state or to be served by the state through their legislative representatives... the new model of citizenship added the courtroom to the voting booth as a locus of civic participation" (250) as voluntary associations like the NAACP used the courts to create change. The mechanisms of this change were litigation, protest, and the idea of rights themselves, which "compelled the nationalization of public policy" (Hečlo 1996 qtd in 258) [6]. Throughout the chapter, Schudson documents transformations inspired by the civil rights movement, including women's rights, social welfare, school rights for handicapped children, worker's rights, speech rights in higher education, rights in the home over domestic violence, and environmental protection. The parties themselves, particularly the Democratic party, were transformed by new visions of representational rights.

Schudson argues that during this period, there were two main contenders for "who owns politics." The first is interest groups and parties, where even social movements were becoming professionalized, and where interest groups were able to carry out coordinated campaigns that were not limited to influencing one branch of government or just one level of federal/state/local government. The second contender was the media, where broadcast and print journalists controlled what the public was able to hear, with some regulation, despite the better efforts of the political system. Notably absent from this was the presidency.

Schudson reviews arguments that rights-consciousness may have serious costs to American democracy, with its emphasis on individual rights rather than communal responsibilities. While it's possible that a focus on rights may be associated with an erosion of citizenship, Schudson notes that interest group mobilization involves substantial community organizing and points out that few critics of rights-based citizenship would prefer to roll back the expansion of rights in America.

A Gathering of Citizens

In the final chapter, Schudson argues that the image of the informed citizen and the rights-oriented citizen now exist side by side. He engages with major arguments on the decline of civic life in the U.S. and asks "how could we know if citizenship and community are in decline?" We might measure:

  • voter turnout (but higher turnout in previous periods was associated with lower voter eligibility)
  • trust in government (on the decline, but maybe skepticism is healthy!)
  • social capital (it's unclear if this is on the decline or not)
  • quality of public discourse
  • disparities between rich and poor
  • the capacity of the least advantaged groups to make their voices heard
  • the inclusiveness of public deliberations

Schudson argues (in 1998) that although rights-oriented citizenship is a major part of contemporary American life, older notions of citizenship prevail in textbooks. And citizenship continues to evolve.

In his conclusion, Schudson argues that a better model see citizens as having

a monitorial obligation.... [to] scan (rather than read) the informational environment in a way so that they may be alerted on a very wide variety of issues for a very wide variety of ends and may be mobilized around those ends in a large variety of ways. They may learn that a product they own has been recalled; that a drought will make produce more expensive in a few weeks; that the road they normally drive home on is tied up with traffic and they should take an alternate route; that an earthquake has made it impossible to contact friends in Los Angeles directly so they should stay tuned for further information; that [due to new information] the context in which they understand the dangers or possibilities in current politics has to be altered(310-11)

Monitorial citizens (310-11):

  • do not need "omnicompetence and omniscience"
  • "tend to be defensive rather than proactive"
  • engage in "environmental surveillance more than information-gathering"
  • are "not an absentee citizen but watchful, even while he or she is doing something else"

Schudson argues that this definition reaches "a division of labor between expertise and self-help that gives credit to both" (312).

Theoretical and practical relevance:

Schudson offers a fantastic overview of the history of the idea of citizenship in the United States, as viewed through the mechanisms of democracy. The book does an excellent job of putting the Dewey/Lippman and Putnam debates on the nature of citizenship in context of the wider scope of American history. It also sets the stage for the "see something, say something" notion of citizenship and cultural conflict that would emerge just a few years later during the War in Iraq.

Notable References

  1. Hofstadter, Richard. 1970. The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840. University of California Press.
  2. Wallas, G. (1914). The great society: A psychological analysis. Macmillan.
  3. Lippmann, W. (1946). Public opinion. Transaction Publishers.
  4. Gallup, G. H., & Rae, S. F. (1968). The pulse of democracy: The public-opinion poll and how it works (No. 367-376). Greenwood Press.
  5. Gallup, G.H. 1948. A Guide to public Opinion Polls, Princeton University Press
  6. Hečlo, H. (1996). The sixties' false dawn: Awakenings, movements, and postmodern policy-making. Journal of Policy History, 8(01), 34-63.