The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. – Review

The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. – Review – book review

Paula Baker

The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. By Michael Schudson (New York: The Free Press, 1998. 390pp.).

On the groaning shelf of works that decry the decline of civil society in America, Michael Schudson’s new book is welcome relief. If the idea that civic life in the United States has declined from some height–be it the early nineteenth century or as recently as the 1950s–it is in part because it is so appealing to seemingly all political persuasions and fits with seemingly endless suggestions for recovery. While it is not surprising that the libertarian Cato Institute sponsors a project on civil society and that communitarian political theorists urge a return to active citizenship through voluntary action, there seem to be few scholars remaining who have confidence in the state to cure what many writers in this vein see as the apathy, privatization, and narrow self-interest that infect the citizenry.

Schudson does not track the fall from some ideal of citizenship. Instead he traces changes in this ideal, and focuses mainly upon forms of political participation, communication, and the question of who “owns” politics. Schudson is careful to draw out both the strengths and limitations of civic life in four eras. The first, from the late colonial period through the early nineteenth century, saw the emergence of a press that connected citizens to a wider public and a fairly widespread right to vote. Yet, elites still “owned” politics–deference to society’s better sorts still ran deep, and participation even among eligible voters was low. As restrictions based on property began to disappear in the early nineteenth century, the new mass political parties gathered theese new voters into a much more participatory and much less deferential political culture. The political parties “owned” politics. They shifted authority in public life from the personalities of notable citizens to impersonal organizations. Control ling newspapers, public employment, and all aspects of campaigns and elections (down to printing the ballots and arranging for polling places), the parties dominated public life. By the 1890’s, that control looked like corruption to a growing number of Americans. As parties turned increasingly to corporations rather than their own employees and candidates for campaign funds, suspicions mounted that business owned politics. Partisanship itself appeared to be selfish and lazy: a new model of citizenship that stressed education before casting an (informed) ballot replaced exuberant party loyalty. The press, meanwhile, sometimes at substantial cost, moved away from partisan “reporting” and toward an independent, although not necessarily non-political, style of delivering the news. Remnants of the ideal of citizenship are still with us, as is the low voter turnout that went along with it. But it has become unclear, Schudson argues, who owns politics since the 1950’s or so. The late twentieth century has introduced many sources of information about public life, and many forms of participation, most strikingly through the courts. In a pattern inspired by civil rights victories, rights enunciated by judges through lawsuits brought by citizens have formed an important way of shaping the meaning and substance of citizenship.

All in all, this is a terrific book that is full of smart observations on everything from the place of the press in public life to campaign finance. Particularly welcome is Schudson’s defense of the “rights revolution” in the mid and late twentieth century: while he recognizes the numerous critiques of the “rights talk,” he also notices the democratic possibilities in individual claims for rights brought through the legal system. Schudson might have done more to explain how and why one conception of citizenship passed to the next. He also might have done more to explain why ideals of citizenship changed from one to the next: he points to big social changes but does not always make clear why these transitions produced particular conceptions of citizenship. Finally–and its nice to say this as a historian about a book written by a sociologist–more explicit theory would have been welcome. Still, Schudson’s level-headed account is a fine place to begin if we are to try to create a more vibrant ideal and practic e of citizenship.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Journal of Social History

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