The Thinness of American Citizenship: Virtue or Failing? Or Both?

by Peter Spiro

I’d like to take up Cristina’s proposition that “it is precisely the thinness of American citizenship that makes it so valuable to its members.” This is an intriguing possibility but in the end I’m not sure I’m on board.

The characterization is consonant with the traditional understanding of American citizenship as being an open affair, and not amounting to much as a constitutional quantity (as Alexander Bickel famously argued). The historical actualities may have been otherwise, of course. Rogers Smith did a number on the openness trope with Civic Ideals, which documents the many historical barriers to citizenship (racial ones, most notably). My variation on this theme: it was all very well to follow to say that citizenship was available to anyone willing to pledge constitutional faith in a world in which mobility was limited. You had to get here first. Citizenship was still mostly about being here, and that, along with other historically distinctive elements of identity, may have sufficed to cement national solidarities.

Cristina notes the “positive evolution toward inclusiveness, as well as the triumph of autonomy.” So maybe we’re catching up to our aspirations. I agree that there have been welcome developments in lowering thresholds to citizenship (though there could be more, like a recognition that the naturalization exam can act in some cases as a serious barrier). But distinctiveness is the victim of that evolution, posing what I call the citizenship dilemma: the more inclusive citizenship is, the less likely it is to command communal loyalties. Loyalty may be best fostered through freedom to associate, but there still has to be something to associate with.

In other words, what’s the substance of an inclusive American identity? I think that question is even tougher to answer today than in the past.

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