That citizenship is active.
Unless we’re talking about undocumented workers supposedly pouring across our southern border, Americans don’t spend a lot of time talking about citizenship. Nothing compels us to examine our status as citizens, and our liberty prevents us from being denied our rights as citizens based on any test or legislated qualification.
Citizenship then, is not a question of what we have to do, it’s a question of what we should do. At a minimum, our obligations as citizens should be to vote and be informed.
Being informed is harder than it sounds. In the age of unlimited information, it can be difficult to weed through the noise to find relevant and accurate information. Social media and search engines create bubbles of isolation based on “Likes” and search histories. Corporate media, or the “mainstream” media, is undoubtedly biased. The alternative media outlets on the far-right and far-left push their prejudices even further, often exaggerating facts and evidence to the point of sensationalism.
The best way to counteract Internet algorithms and media distortions is to allow everything and anything into your view. This may seem counterintuitive, because our ultimate goal is to lessen not inflate bias, but by opening up the lanes of information, you’re expanding your vision to all points of view. Of course you want to follow NPR and PBS on Facebook and Twitter, but “Like” Think Progress and Rush Limbaugh, too. Let MSNBC and Fox News into your newsfeed, comforted by the fact that their partisan perspectives are obvious.
Another advantage given to us by the digital revolution is the fairly recent presence of fact-checking sites that examine statements made by politicians to the press. FactCheck.org and Politifact.com are excellent resources. Snopes.com is great for when your racist grandma sends you that chain email stating that Obama had lunch with the leader of Isis in the Oval Office.
Voting is our second minimum obligation as citizens of America. National voter turnout rates in presidential elections since 2004 have hovered around 60%. Mid-term elections, the elections that run two years into a president’s term and decide the makeup of Congress, barely broke a turnout rate of 40%. Primary, local, and runoff election turnout rates fall even lower.
Voting is the single-most crucial component to the preservation of democracy. Apathetic populations breed corruptive governments that actively suppress the most disadvantaged members of society. Moderates should vote in every election in which they are able, local and national. They should be aware of who their elected officials are, and examine their choices wisely. Name recognition and personality are not appropriate reasons to choose a candidate.
Party voting and block voting are two appropriate methods of choice. Though voting is a civic act, voting is also an action based on personal conviction and self-interest. Representative government provides the balance that allows us to be selfish with our suffrage. A good example would be the teacher that votes with his or her union. Unions often endorse and promote candidates based on the interest of their members. Another example is a voter that is more progressive on social issues voting Democrat, or a voter that believes in limited government voting Republican.
This is not an endorsement of blind, ideological voting. The assumption is that the voter is first informed, then chooses to vote based on his or her ability to think critically. Breaking with your voting habits and prejudices is also encouraged. Regardless of how you make your choices, you should always remember that your presence in the voting booth matters, because it reminds our elected officials that their power is always subject to the judgment of their constituents. The power of this message amplifies when more people vote.
Should you be so compelled, there are other ways to be an active citizen. You can volunteer for a non-profit, activist, or political organization. You can find ways to improve the condition of your country through outreach programs offered in your local community. You can even run for elected office and become someone who changes the establishment from within. Everyone in America has talents and skills that can contribute to the collective whole for the betterment of society. We just need to believe that it’s worth it, and that individuals can have an impact on the system.
What we need is a new understanding of citizenship in America. A sense of purpose that motivates us to participate. Be informed, vote, and if you can carve out a slice of time for something extra, do what you can. Underneath it all, remember that you are a citizen. You are a part of something bigger than yourself. America isn’t just a country defined by its borders; it’s an idea, a philosophy, a societal premise that diverse individuals can live and work together for a common goal.