The role of the citizen

Authored by Hans Zeiger

Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of scholars and teachers who are committed to advancing the core texts and ideas of the American political tradition. Zeiger previously served in state and local government in Washington State, including serving as chair of the Senate Early Learning and K–12 Education Committee and ranking member on the House Higher Education Committee. He recently spoke with American Habits senior editor Ray Nothstine about the meaning of democracy, federalism, and the knowledge crisis in civics.

Are you concerned that so much of our current understanding of democracy and civic life is being reduced to voting, and along with that, an increasingly passive tribalism?

Hans Zeiger: I should start by affirming that voting is important. I’ll begin there. I learned that in a powerful way when I first ran for the Washington State Legislature. I was challenging an eight-year incumbent. I went door to door asking people for their votes with a good grassroots team. I ended up winning by 29 out of 52,000 votes. Every vote matters. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Especially in state and local elections. I think that’s worth emphasizing when we tend to focus so much on a national race.

While voting is important, there is much more to democracy and civic life in our country than just voting in elections. Many think their responsibility as a citizen is to vote and leave it at that. They’re missing out on a lot of the joy of life in a free society, and that’s a shame. The role of citizens in a self-governing society is ongoing, and it is demanding. It requires much more of us than we are in the habit of acknowledging.

The role of citizen extends beyond government and politics. We don’t talk about that very often when we think about active citizenship. So often the emphasis is on what are we doing in relation to our government. Self-government in a free society is much more than just the formal institutions of government and more than politics. The American founders understood that the personal character of citizens is critical to the way that society is conducted.

19th century illustration of Washington’s ascendency to the American presidency.

Then Alexis de Tocqueville and many others have made the point that the role Americans play in civil society in terms of our free institutions—not just in government but a variety of ways that we get involved in our communities—has a whole lot to do with the health of the polity. How we relate to our neighbors; how we get involved in community organizations and causes; how we work with others to solve problems in our local schools, in our houses of worship, and the myriad of charitable organizations. All this makes up the fabric of our civic life. That means that we dare not underestimate the office of citizen. It also means that civic life is far more demanding and far more interesting than we often give it credit for.

We hear a lot about “saving democracy” as a narrative in the media and culture. We hear quite a bit less about federalism in the news cycle. What about both of those terms do you think are important to know and how do they intertwine?

Zeiger: That’s a great question. We must be careful how we define terms. There are lively debates about terminology. Are we a democracy? Are we a republic? Both of those terms are useful.

The opening words of the state constitution that I know best, the Washington Constitution, are echoed in other state constitutions. That preamble says, “All political power is inherent in the people and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.”

Of course, you can hear language like that echoed in the Declaration of Independence, which contains the idea of democracy. It is helpful to qualify how we practice democracy, a representative democracy, or we might even say a constitutional democracy.

Federalism is a key feature of our constitutional order. It is worth acquainting ourselves with the arguments that the founders made for that constitutional order and our federalism framework. It’s worth looking at the debates between the so-called federalists and the so-called anti-federalists. The terminology can get confusing dating back to that period because some of the arguments that the anti-federalists were making are more akin to the dispersal of political power that we mean by the word federalism.

Federalism is how our democratic order is dispersed across 50 states and a multitude of counties, cities, and towns. It means that there are differing ways of making public policies. It means that there are differing ways of conducting our political life with one another across these places. In most areas of policy, that’s okay. There are a few areas where we’ve said as a country, we want to make that a national policy and a national area of concern, so there’s consistency across the various jurisdictions.

Within the spirit of the Constitution, for the most part, we should leave decision making to states and the people. If we treat our national government as a simple democracy without understanding its constitutional forms and without understanding federalism, we run the risk of undermining the fundamental buy-in that federalism affords us as members of a state or local jurisdiction. Buy-in can’t be underestimated. You look at some of the decline in confidence with our governing institutions—that has a lot to do with how we view our government because we are looking at Washington first.

We don’t pay as much attention to state and local government. That causes serious problems. If we treat national policy and politics as the only things that matter, our national government begins to seem awfully distant to us. The reality is state and local governments are closer. That’s where most of the decisions ought to be made—where each of us are more likely to have a say, or at least to know that we have some level of access to the decision-makers. Understanding these terms is critical.

You’re deep in the civic space educating people and trying to raise awareness about the dearth of civic knowledge in America today. What’s the overall good and bad news about the current state of civics?

Zeiger: The bad news is that civic knowledge is greatly neglected. We see that in surveys. The National Assessment of Educational Progress score for eighth graders is 13% history proficiency and 22% civics proficiency. I already mentioned the decline in civic confidence. When we hear that Americans are losing confidence and trust in one another, losing trust in our institutions, we should be deeply concerned and see how we can remedy it.

The good news is that most Americans have a remaining sense of what it is that we need to recover in terms of civic education. Our organization, the Jack Miller Center, commissioned a poll in late 2022 asking parents what they think is important for their children to know about civic matters. It turns out 89% agree across the political spectrum that it’s very important to teach the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the responsibilities of citizenship. There is a core of civic knowledge that we can agree on as Americans.

Yes, there are outliers revealing different views about what’s important, and when you get down to the details, there are going to be debates about what the social studies, civics, and history curricula look like. On the fundamentals, we basically agree as Americans. That’s worth pointing out because you would tend to think that we’re so polarized in these areas that there’s no way forward. I think there is a way forward. I’m optimistic about that.

Looking a little deeper at that, there’s this broad agreement we need more civic education. Is there a concern about what constitutes civics collectively? I think that the rapid polarization and politicization of society in many camps creates a space to be hyper-political but maybe that’s more of a media push. Do you think that we can have broad agreement on what civics means for younger citizens who need to learn?

Zeiger: Yes, I do think we can reach an agreement. There was a very noble effort called Educating for American Democracy that attempted to arrive at some consensus, not to say there’s going to be a uniform curriculum or there’s going to be identical standards for every state in the country, but proposing a framework that can be the basis for consideration in the various states. I thought it was a very thoughtful effort at bringing together conservatives and progressives and many different voices in the civic education arena to find something that we can move forward on. That’s worth checking out.

My biggest takeaway from public service, the dozen years I spent in public offices, was that we have a lot more in common with each other than we give ourselves credit for. I saw repeatedly how people can come across the political aisle and get things done for their constituents. Unfortunately, we talk past each other quite a bit in our politics with the way we use vocabulary.

It’s interesting the Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, which is a network of philanthropists and charitable organizations, has an ongoing survey and they just released the latest iteration of it on civic language. What are the terms that we like and what are the terms that we don’t like as much? What are the terms that resonate a lot with people on the left? What are the terms that resonate with a lot with people on the right? Some terms are weighed down with controversy like patriotism, democracy, and equity. There are reasons to debate these terms, but often we just have terminology that favors our own political position.

Turns out that it’s worth looking at that survey because there are a lot of commonalities in certain terminology, and we ought to pay attention to that and find ways we can talk with one another about the common values we hold. I think it’s essential that we can identify the history, the documents, and the ideals that we hold in common as Americans. Yes, we’re going to disagree. We’re a big country and we’re a pluralistic country, but it’s important to have some sense of what we hold in common. I haven’t given up hope on that. That’s why I’m doing the work that I do.

Hans Zeiger 2023.

Following up on that, how can the teaching and understanding of civics move us beyond some of our divisions? The more we engage and the more we become knowledgeable about American civic life, what’s required of us—can that heal some of the fractures we have now?

Zeiger: We have to recover a sense of what it is we hold in common: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” That is something that we, through the social contract of citizenship in this country, hold. We can debate all kinds of things under that umbrella. We can be on the left. We can be on the right. The American political tradition is broad, but let’s start with the truths that we hold in common. All human beings are created equal. They’re endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

There are these things that we must rally around as citizens and teach in our schools and affirm in our public rituals and institutions. We have neglected that kind of civic formation, civic education, and civic affirmation in our society. There’s a big opportunity to return to that coming up, on the 250th anniversary of our country. We’d be wise to embrace civic education as the cause of our generation.

Shifting a little, you’re a former state legislator. What worries you most about the centralization of power at the federal level? It seems like that’s the natural state of affairs, the trend that more power becomes centralized throughout human history. Are there ways for state and local lawmakers to address that in their work? What can we do to recapture a deeper understanding of self-government, not just from a partisan perspective, but also just from an educational perspective?

Zeiger: Stepping back to the academic disciplines that form so much of our understanding of politics and policy, you think about political science and then some more recent disciplines that have arisen, such as public policy and public administration. This is a major reason for the existence of my organization, the Jack Miller Center, because those disciplines have become ever more narrowly focused on training people for very specialized career pathways or on the very specialized and narrow research agendas of the academics in those professions.

What has been neglected in that process is the civic formation of the students who are pursuing those disciplines, the awareness of the responsibilities of citizenship that ought to flow from the study of politics and democracy and our traditions of self-government. That accompanies what you’re describing: the rise of the administrative state. The academic disciplines have contorted themselves in many respects to serve the rise of the administrative state. That changes the way that we do civic education at all levels.

Now, one of the biggest reasons for hope that I see out there is the rise of new academic units and public universities that we are calling “schools of civic thought,” starting at Arizona State University several years ago with their School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and now spreading to many institutions, including the University of Florida; the University of Texas, Austin; five universities in Ohio; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Utah Valley University; the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; and others that are just getting started.

I see this as a reason for tremendous hope for the future of civic instruction at all levels because state legislatures are creating these not only with an eye to undergraduate education, but also as a platform for the preparation of K–12 civics teachers so that they understand history, understand the civic tradition of our country, and understand how to present primary source readings to their students.

Extremely talented academics are getting involved with these projects. Many of them are fellows of the Jack Miller Center. We trust these folks. We’ve known them for a long time and are encouraging the work that they’re doing in these innovative programs. We know that this is a movement that’s just taking off and has huge promise for the future.

Related to that, we talk so much about rights in society, in politics, in culture. Everything’s boiled down to individual rights, and those are good. We should affirm many of those that are in the public debate today, but it seems like we talk so little about civic responsibilities or the virtues that are required in our republic. Why is that and how do we recover that thinking?

Zeiger: There are probably a lot of different ways to diagnose why it is that we don’t think about civic responsibilities as much as we should. We often think too much like consumers when we think about our government. Some new books are worth mentioning that I’ll recommend.

One is called “The Bill of Obligations” by Richard Haass, who for many years ran the Council on Foreign Relations. He understands that we need to recover a sense of obligation as citizens in America and why that has some bearing on our standing in the world. He goes through and lists certain obligations of citizens in a free society. That’s worth checking out.

07/04/1976,  Gerald R. Ford – waving to passing ships – 4th of July Bicentennial Event. (Public Domain)

Another book that just came out is by Jeffrey Rosen, who’s the CEO of the National Constitution Center, and it’s called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” He reviews the content that the founders of our country were reading about the topic of happiness and—closely related to that—the topic of wisdom, and shows they were deeply concerned about civic virtue and personal virtue related to the health of the republic.

Then the final book I’ll mention is by Alexandra Hudson, and it’s called “The Soul of Civility.” She has taken this one civic virtue, civility, and delved into what it is, why it’s important, and it’s not just politeness.

When we hear the word civility, we might think that’s about being polite. No, it’s much more than that. It is about regarding the human dignity of our fellow human beings and treating them accordingly, which may mean, in some cases, the opposite of politeness. There is value in standing up for human dignity and taking a stand like those in the civil rights movement and many others throughout our country’s history.

You mentioned the nearing of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Why are America’s founding documents still relevant? Why should we be reading them now?

Zeiger: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution can give us a common reference point for our shared identity as Americans. One of the things that we absolutely must hold in common are these founding documents that can be a guide, a source of unity, and a source of helping us to provide the framework for the difficult discussions that we need as fellow citizens.

We must confront the difficult matters and not ignore them or not talk past one another, mired in perpetual stalemate. We need to figure out how we can work together under this experiment in deliberative democracy, a constitutional democracy that has been going on for almost 250 years. It is an experiment well worth continuing. The 250th coming up in 2026 is such a big opportunity to double down on the work of citizenship and the study of these foundational documents and principles.

Authored by:Hans Zeiger


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