Tribalism has been a narrative since the beginning of time. History is full of stories of warring tribes, complete with winners and losers carrying the societal and individual consequences of their conflict. American concepts of equality and citizenship are a historical anomaly that were understood and treated as both a gift and a treasure for the better part of two centuries in the U.S.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson, in The Dying Citizen, outlines the historical forces that led to what he describes as the current crisis of American citizenship. He asserts that there are several factors in regard to that process, including the intentional evisceration of the middle class. I would agree and add that an increased dependency on the federal government by both individuals and state government feeds the beast. Hanson believes that open borders have undermined the idea of allegiance to any particular geographical location. I would agree and assert that the wholesale rejection of pride in our country and the intellectual and cultural embrace of anti-exceptionalism has aided in that lack of allegiance. Hanson identifies identity politics as a source of the eradication of our collective civic sense of self. I would agree and add that intersectionality has weaponized tribalism in both the public and private sector. Hanson argues that a top-heavy administrative state has endangered personal liberty. I would agree and add that the almost infinite expansion of the bureaucratic state combined with the unwarranted subservience to the opinions of the public elite have eviscerated even a desire for individual liberty. Hanson believes that formal efforts to weaken the Constitution weaken our commitment to citizenship. I would agree and add that the continual attack on our founding documents and founders is both intentional and immensely impactful.
Hanson articulates that, “Increasingly, many Americans, mostly our wealthiest and best credentialed, do not believe in American singularity. Instead, they see themselves as universalists. They claim that while they are nominally residents of the United States, Americans are in truth spiritually and politically citizens of a wider, but also increasingly narrowing, world —- and they use their networking, money, and public influence to advance these cosmopolitan agendas. At best they see their American citizenship as not different than any other nations’. At worst they feel embarrassed that in an increasingly diverse, statist, and interconnected world, they are shackled by the baleful legacy of an eighteenth-century elite aristocracy with its ossified constitutional ideas of American citizenship that selfishly put too high a premium on individual liberty and freedom.”
Aren’t individual liberty and freedom two of our most valuable and foundational tenets? What happened to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Are they now antiquated notions in an increasingly global society? We better hope not and we better advocate otherwise. Our republican principles have enabled the greatest political experiment in the history of civilization to succeed and the entire world is better for it. Putting global concerns above American concerns undermines our freedom and our ability to allow for and encourage the freedom of others. Similarly, putting business or national concerns above Alabama interests erodes the financial health and freedoms of our state citizenry.
“Citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get along without it. What keeps a republic on its legs is good citizenship,” wrote Mark Twain.
We’re a republic. Not a monarchy or even an oligarchy. However, when elites on the national or state level are more concerned with the business interests that give them PAC money or the broad interests of the community at large rather than their own countrymen or state citizenry, negative consequences abound for regular Americans and Alabamians. The greatest threat to our citizenship is from within our own ranks.
What are the benefits and expectations of American citizenship? Do they even exist anymore? I found myself asking these questions in the aftermath of the recent primary election in Alabama. What does it mean to participate well in the political sphere? Is a rudimentary understanding of the political process enough? Is periodic voting a minimal expectation? If so, what do we make of the small number of registered voters that participated in the recent primary election? Is researching candidates prior to voting a reasonable expectation or are we content to have a statewide popularity contest funded by the highest bidder? Is there a cynical understanding that cute ads and/or cute candidates are effective regardless of the candidate’s actual record of service? Are we so contented to be swayed by the strong visuals of crosses and guns and flags that we summarily disregard the facts behind the facade? Is being truthful or even having a plan an expectation for our political candidates anymore?
It’s clear to me that we’ve lost our way. Our understanding of duty and responsibility as citizens has been lost. Our expectations are too low, and we’re mired by our insecurities as a nation and state. Being exceptional isn’t a negative. Being last is never good enough. Being content with being last is nothing short of tragic. To me, in the state of Alabama, the die is cast; the question now is if there are enough citizens who are willing to attempt a return to the path set before us with eager anticipation, rather than defeated resignation.
Can we, as Americans, rebuild what we have lost? There is no reset button. There are no quick or easy answers; intentional and arduous work must be done; the road might be longer than we anticipated and too long for some to endure.
Can we, as Alabamians, recover a renewed sense of what it means to be good citizens of both our country and state? Can we begin to expect more of ourselves and, in turn, demand more of those who claim to represent our values during elections but summarily ignore those values as they rule over us?
Hanson argues that the stakes are, “no less than the preservation of the American republic itself.” I would agree and apply that exact same sentiment to the state of Alabama.
Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information Commentary@1819News.com.