July 5, 2022

Being A Good Citizen


Is it just me, or does the political "season" never really end? Some of us are still trying to relitigate the 2020 results, while the primary season for 2022 is well underway, and those with the desire to take the top spot in 2024 already making noise.

The public hearings concerning the January 6th insurrection attempt (that is what it was, like it or not)  are not changing opinions that have solidified over the past 18 months. Our country is in the grip of tribalism with factions hardened into solid rock. 

The hearings did bring to mind a post I had written several years ago. In light of what has happened since it was originally published, I have rewritten parts of it to reflect my feelings today, in the summer of 2022. This country can not continue to exist in its splintered form, much less prosper, if we expect leaders in Washington or the state capitols to do all the heavy lifting, while we are just along for the ride.

A citizen has responsibilities, too. We cannot take the position that politics is a dirty business, the people often self-serving, and I can ignore it all while just living my life without paying attention to all that stuff. The obvious flaw in that argument is all the effects of those faraway decisions (or lack of them) do affect you, every day. 

Given all the struggles and impediments that exist at the moment, we still have to evaluate and pick those who we hope will do the best job. We have to be part of the "team" on the ground, working to correct mistakes or flawed decisions, promoting our vision, and not sitting back only content to blame the system. 

So, here goes. What are our "qualifications" to take part in this grand experiment known as American democracy?

1) Commit to being educated. I would argue this is the most important requirement. A citizen must take the time to learn about the issues, to think deeply about the problems and opportunities we face, and avoid the tendency to accept whatever the media or our favorite talking heads have to say. Even something as seemingly simple as a primary requires work. 

Example? There are five people on the August ballot to be on our city council. I am to pick three. I have never heard of any of them. So, I took the time to pull up the statements and web pages of each. After reading what their backgrounds were and what they thought were the key problems facing Chandler, AZ, I was able to choose the three that I thought would be best for the job. 

Just because something is on the Internet, TV, or radio does not mean it is accurate and true, though it may be. A citizen's responsibility is to dig deeper. Consult multiple sources for insight including those outside your normal comfort zone. Talk to others, and form your own opinions but be prepared to change what you think if new information becomes available. Rigidity is not compatible with education.

2) Commit to participate. Did you happen to notice the news stories about record low turnout in two recent political contests? Not voting makes you no better than a non-citizen. Not supporting candidates and issues you believe in leaves you no right to complain about the outcome. Of course, you have every right and responsibility to advocate for or against things you feel passionately about. But, if you don't play in the game, you can't complain about the score.

3) Commit to support or deny support as appropriate. Even if your dream candidate wins, even if every ballot proposition that you support passes, your duties are not over. There will be people, maybe lots of them, who disagree with you. You must work to support what you think is important and withdraw your support if someone or something doesn't seem right.

As the next point states, that doesn't mean you stop paying taxes if you dislike the IRS. It doesn't mean you occupy a federal building to protest a policy you find odious. It does mean you vote against people or things. It does mean you legally protest, with signs or petitions. You use your money and time to support or deny support. 

A democracy will always have disagreement among well-intentioned people on both (or multiple) sides of an issue. Don't demonize those with different viewpoints. Work to educate them about your point of view, or accept that we are human and can come to very different conclusions about almost everything.

4) Commit to following the rules. With a civilized, organized society comes the rule of law. As much as a citizen disagrees with the speed trap south of town, if caught driving faster than posted, he will pay the fine. If called to jury duty she will serve. If someone disagrees with a point of law you don't disobey it but work to change it. 

As our society is structured, the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbitrator. Has the Court become as politicized as the rest of society? Absolutely. The last week has proven that point quite clearly. Is it time for a change in the Court's power, construction, or term lengths? Work to change the laws. A citizen doesn't have the right to disobey legal statutes he disagrees with, no matter how wrong-headed you view them to be. Otherwise, we face anarchy.

5) Commit to being committed. Being a good citizen is not a part-time job. You can't "turn it on" in an election year and then hibernate until the next one. As the points above should make clear, this is a full-time responsibility. 

It isn't lost on me that this post is being published right after the 4th of July holiday period. I can't think of a better time to remind ourselves, that after the fireworks and celebrations, being a citizen of this country brings with it costs and obligations. If we don't take them seriously, we risk becoming a society that doesn't work for anyone, and a society we no longer recognize.


  1. Thank you for posting this and I hope it helps people to decide on their own paths of participation. I'm still figuring mine out, but I am committed to doing the best that I can do.

    1. I am sure you heard about the mass shooting at the 4th of July parade near Chicago. Even one of our most sacred holidays is not free of people believing they have a right to use violence to make a point.

      That is not the answer. Being a citizen is not a risk-free position. All of us must be involved all the time for a chance at having reason and tolerance prevail.

  2. Thanks for this, Bob. For the past two weeks, I've been reading Fiona Hill's memoir cum political analysis, There Is Nothing for You Here, about the ways that rising inequality and loss of opportunity give rise to the kinds of despair and rage that fuel the rise of populism. Readers may remember Hill as the British-accented National Security Russia expert who testified at Trump's first impeachment trial. Her book is a deeply personal and thoughtful analysis of what ails us politically. I've just reached the last section, with her proposals for what we need to do to heal our political divisions and "build forward together" (her alternative to "build back better") by creating infrastructures of opportunity for the "have nots." She ends with pragmatic suggestions about what we can all do, in addition to educating ourselves and voting, to help build those infrastructures of opportunity. She even has a special list of how retirees can help.

    1. It sounds like a book I should read. I have recently finished several along those lines that detail the tribalism and intolerance we are suffering through, some of which come from the original governing approach the Founding Fathers devised.

      I remind myself that the divisions were worse during the Civil War, but that doesn't mean we aren't headed that way again, this time between Blue and Red instead of Blue and Grey.

    2. Another vote for Fiona Hill's book. An excellent read.

    3. I pick it up today at the library!

  3. I enthusiastically support all of your suggestions, Bob.... and I would add one: "Embrace Doubt." I have found that being ready and willing to doubt the evidence--both mine and that of others--to be one of the most helpful tools to navigate the current political sphere and other aspects of life as well. Our politics are now locked into tribal "certainty," which history has shown to lead only to destruction and misery, for both governments and individuals. Any examination of totalitarian or authoritarian governments in history will provide the proof.

    I would make one more book recommendation after a recent read: "Our Own Worst Enemy," by Tom Nichols. It is one of the best descriptions of how we have come to be where we are today as a country, and that it is a phenomenon happening around the world. For those short on reading time, there is also an excellent interview/analysis of his thesis on WBUR "On Point" radio program. The link is here:


    Rick in Oregon

  4. Embrace doubt should be a standard position, though I am afraid it is not. All of us tend to get locked into our own closed loop of information and beliefs.

    I have put the Nichols book on hold at the library. Thanks, Rick.

  5. I agree people should vote who study the issues, if people feel they do not know how to vote then they are best serving their country by not voting. I disagree with your premise on the events of January 6th, more citizens occupied the Capitol building during the Kavanaugh Confirmation hearings. The only people present in the Capitol on 1/6/2021 with guns were the Capitol police. I grew up watching people occupy many federal buildings in protest of the Vietnam War and none of them were shot. The Capitol police knew ahead of time there were protestors on the grounds why didn't they lock and barricade the doors. They expected trouble that is why the Former Chief of the Capitol Police requested additional forces from the National Guard 6 times and was denied by the House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving.

    I don't dispute President Trump lost the election. What idiots thought they could complain for the last 4 years that the 2016 election was stolen and the Republicans wouldn't complain the same thing. Here it is 6 years later and Democrats and Reporters are still claiming the 2016 election was stolen even after it was debunked.

    We are not a Democracy but a Constitutional. All three branches are co-equal none having more power than the other. The Checks and Balances work fine. The Supreme Court decided the Constitution did not give them the power to create new laws with their opinions like Roe vs Wade.

    This whole abortion issue should have been decided decades ago but wasn't because the other two branches of government refused to do their job. Biden voted against abortion when he was in the senate. If Catholic Ireland's legislature can pass a law legalizing abortion then our Congress & Presidency can too. Politicians abrogated their power by allowing the Supreme Court to create law. Many times in the last 70 years Democrats have held majorities in the House & Senate and the White House. Democrats also had a 60 vote Majority in the Senate many times which could have over ridden any opposition.
    Most Americans favor abortions during the first trimester, it is time for the Politicians to do their job and work together to pass a compromise. This all or nothing mentality Politicians and the press have is bad for the country. I good abortion law will have all sides dissatisfied.

    1. I participated in a few college protests and even marched in Washington to demonstrate against the Vietnam war. But, at none of those events were any people breaking windows, threatening to hang someone, or beating police officers. No one was killed. To equate peaceful protests with the inserrection attempt on January 6th is not legitimate.

      I do agree that that Congress is not doing its job, allowing a politically conservative majority on the SC to be making decisions that run counter to majority American opinions.

      Hillary Clinton gracefully conceded after the 2016 election. Obviously, Mr. Trump and too many of his supporters have not been the grownups in the room after 2020.

      Thank you, Jack, for expressing your opinions in a respectful way. I encourage disagreement and differing opinions that allow us to consider differing points of view.

  6. Thank you for this, Bob. Like many, I have been riveted by the hearings and saddened knowing that so many have dismissed the findings without even watching them. So many brave people have come forward and so many cowards are throwing flames from the sidelines (safely, not being under oath). I'm not sure what all this division will end up doing to our country but I wish I was more optimistic.

    I've enjoyed reading the various comments (and will come back to read more) and now have two interesting-sounding books on hold at my local library.

    1. I picked up the Fiona Hillbook at the library yesterday.

      Democracy encourages different opinions and ways of solving problems. It is when truth and facts become hostage to emotion and wishful thinking that we find ourselves in real trouble.

  7. Hi Bob. I agree with every point you made. It is difficult to witness the disintegration of human rights and due process in your country — a move toward totalitarianism that is being echoed in a number of countries around the world. Here in Canada, we’ve suffered through a copycat movement spouting MAGA rhetoric, the so-called “freedom” convoy. Fear, discouragement, racism, sexism, the protection of privilege, and identity politics — whatever the components are that have hardened people into rigid fascist-leaning stances, it is hard to believe and even harder to find the way forward.


    1. I am beginning to accept that much of the developed world is entering a regressive period that will involve major steps backwards. Why it is happening is a mystery and how to stop it is not at all clear.

  8. I enjoy your blog quite a bit. This topic is a tricky one, as is being a citizen in America. I'm genuinely impressed that you chose to take it on, and I applaud your courage for doing so. I equally impressed with the temperate tone of the comments I read. I hope my reply will continue in that tradition -- such will be my attempt at any rate. I have some opinions on the matter, but they are fluid and not particularly set, and I hope you will forgive my clumsy attempt to use this platform to consider them.

    Here goes!

    Unlike many other countries, America (as far as I can perceive) is a country that provides its citizenry with a voice. That profound privilege, though, seems to be predicated upon a foundation of responsibility. As the bard says, there is the rub. Thoreau certainly courses through my mind as I comment here for many reasons. I think there is a temptation to avoid responsibility in all of us because responsibility is difficult and rife with challenge. That temptation to avoid responsibility and really cede control makes being a citizen of this country in particular fraught with tension and discomfort. I don't think these emotions in and of themselves are problematic; rather, they are just byproducts of a complex and human interaction with responsibility that finds purchase in an American society. If we live in a country where we have influence through the vote (as well as protests, freedom of speech, etc.), then I would argue we have responsibility. We are responsible for our individual actions, and, more to the point, the collective actions of our country through its expression of government precisely, I would argue, because of the right to vote. In short, if we had no voice and no vote, we would have no responsibility.

  9. That last point is an uncomfortable one that I suspect many would like to distance themselves from. One way to avoid the discomfort is not to think about it, so many get lost in their careers or daily dramas. Such concerns are understandable and real -- I do not mean to diminish them. They often are very important in the moment. They do, however, take us further from the responsibilities and awareness of citizenship. Through the busyness of our lives, we can hear a common refrain: "My government did that, but I don't agree. I vote, so I am part of the solution." I sometimes wonder if the act of voting is a way to soothe our troubled consciences by suggesting to ourselves that we need not do more than vote, and in that action of voting, all is absolved. Do we stop acting and accept the actions of our government because we voted? Does that act actually disempower us rather than, as we sometimes try to believe, empower us? Thoreau with his response to the poll tax certainly felt voting was helpful but not enough in and of itself. He could not abide what, in his mind, was an illegal war and could not support that action in any way. To be clear, I'm certainly not advocating violence whatsoever, and there should be no confusion over or doubt about that point. I'm much more interested in how we think about our relationship as citizens to society through the ballot box and other cultural avenues like protests and raising issues through petition.

    Thoreau, of course, would disagree that the act of voting in and of itself is enough. To use his metaphor, he felt we should throw our whole selves into the machine. What does that mean? How far does Thoreau think we should go? I don't know the answer to these questions. I guess all of this is to say that citizenship in this country is demanding, sometimes uncomfortably so, and perhaps unique to each individual.

  10. Ultimately, and sadly, I can understand the temptation to live in an autocratic country without a voice. I think the impulse exists because in that state, one really does not hold responsibility for the actions of one's government. One does not even have to be conscious in any real sense of the word. Indeed, an autocratic society encourages a purging of thought and consciousness. One become a passive passenger rather than an engaged driver. One is relieved of being responsible for the actions of the government because one is excluded from the government. Power acts upon one rather than one having agency in society. Perhaps some would prefer to avoid the heavy burden of responsibility regardless of the price tag of abdicating voice. I don't know where most people stand on the issue, but I often think human nature prefers an avoidance of responsibility -- think Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.

    Ultimately, at least right now, I think life as a thoughtful and conscientious American citizen is really difficult because one has to weigh one's conscience against one's free actions in a free society. We have the liberty to act morally, but that means we must define what "moral" is and how we act on that definition. In the same moment, though, we are also exposed to the possibility that our actions (or inactions) may lead to immorality. How we address this position of the citizen in America, of course, is an individual choice and decision -- one that everyone makes, whether consciously or not. Still, most people have a conscience, and that means people have to live with whatever decisions they make and whatever consequences they visit upon society.

    1. I am assuming these last three comments came from the same reader since they flow together and they were left within a few minutes of each other. Blogger has a limit on the length of any one comment. That is why they appear to be three separate ones.

      Firstly, let me assure you what you are saying fits perfectly with the overall tone of the blog. As you have noticed, a civil tone, both in comment and response is very important to the longevity of this blog and my enjoyment in continuing it. There are plenty of places on the Internet to vent your spleen; this is not one of them.

      My response to all you said will not be all that lengthy. You have made several tremendously important points about voting, citizenship, and what else my be required of us. Your comment (s) is one that should be read, re-read, and maybe read again by everyone who visits here. Frankly, your thoughts feel like a very well done presentation in a college classroom or as part of one of the Great Courses series!

      I will isolate part of one sentence out of so many good ones that rings so true to me. As a member of a free society, I must not be "a passive passenger rather than an engaged driver." Bingo.

      Thank you for the time and thought you put into what you left for all of us to contemplate. I deeply appreciate it.

  11. Bob, you mentioned your confusion about the world entering a regressive state. I have some thoughts on this development. Two influences may be connected to what seems to be regressive motion in the world: religion and education. I remain optimistic in human beings, as I suspect you do. We are thinking animals, and there is a nobility about the human spirit. I think we will find our way and we will reconnect with each other. Most people I have met genuinely want to act honorably, but sometimes it is difficult to do so if such actions require risk and sacrifice. Also, without clear thinking and disciplined/educated minds, we are not likely to even be able to identify problems, much less address them. The courage of our convictions and all of that.

    I tried to avoid a soapbox approach here -- nobody likes that kind of tone. If I failed in my earnest attempt, please be kind to me and remember the bard -- If we mortals have offended, think but this and all is mended -- ignore these thoughts!

    1. Organized religion has been the source of comfort and hope to many prople throughout history. Unfortunately, because humans are in control, it has also been the driving force behind some of the worst abuses known to mankind.

      My personal quest has actually moved me deeper into a connection with a force much greater than me, as I have moved away from orgainzed religious approaches.

  12. Hi Bob. Thank you for the response. Yes, all comments came from the same person. Religion can serve as a critical pillar of personal and societal support. Religion, though, is tricky because it attempts to achieve an ideal, and humans, of course, are not ideal. That means religion will likely disappoint at various moments. After reflecting a bit more on the topic, I think, ultimately, I find America to be a place that can strive to be a more perfect union. That is inspiring to me. I don't think such an opportunity necessarily exists in other countries -- some countries, of course, do provide such an opportunity. I appreciate your thoughts on the matter, Bob! I also continue to enjoy your insightful entries.