The Retreat from Citizenship in the United States and Canada
North America is home to two of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies — countries that, for generations, have been magnets for those seeking economic opportunity and political freedom. But democracy in the United States is ailing, and badly in need of reform. Canadian democracy, while very far from perfect, is currently working better, although there are dark clouds gathering on the horizon. In both countries, there is a notable Democratic Disconnect between citizens and their governments. Citizenship in this context means two things. First, it means sharing a common, civic identity: the “self” in self-government. Second, it means participating in the creation and receipt of public goods, the sharing of burdens and benefits: the “government” in self-government.
A sense of diminished citizenship is now pervasive across the socio-economic spectrum in North America. What is new is that the opportunities and demands of citizenship no longer seem to resonate strongly either with economic elites or with growing numbers of the middle class. For the poor and marginalized, growing economic inequality undermines the promise of citizenship. There is less upward mobility for low-income Americans today than there is for their counterparts in Canada or Western Europe. Significant inequality used to be justified in the United States by the idea that everyone had a fair shot at the American Dream.
That is less and less true today. Meanwhile, the middle class is beleaguered. Since 2000, according to Pew Research, it has “shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some — but by no means all — of its characteristic faith in the future.” Many at the top of the economic heap seem inclined to hive themselves off from their fellow citizens — in gated communities, niche charter schools, and luxury boxes at sports events. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney found it difficult to appeal to “the 47 percent” in part because he found it hard to respect them as co-equal citizens. After all, what united the 47 percent — including many African Americans, Hispanics, and young people — was that they were all seen by the wealthy as recipients of “gifts” from the government of the day, not as civic participants in a political and governmental process whose programs bring them burdens and benefits as it does for other members of the political community.
The retreat from citizenship is both the product of deficient democratic practices and an accelerant of democratic dysfunction. Erecting barriers to political participation erodes the public’s will to engage. Making voter registration more difficult by requiring voter identification or imposing short registration deadlines, or systematic efforts to suppress voting, pre-empt participation. Sophisticated gerrymandering that protects incumbents or favors one party is another obstacle. Other countries have independent bodies responsible for redefining electoral boundaries after a census. In the United States, this function is performed at the state level; with rare exceptions like California, which recently created an independent redistricting commission, it is carried out by state politicians who have an interest in warping the federal redistricting process for partisan advantage. The results can be grotesque, and incomprehensible to citizens.
Although Canada’s electoral machinery generally works well, the country is afflicted by a number of the forces affecting citizenship and democratic practice in the United States. While less of a problem than in the United States, income inequality, middle-class insecurity, and the lack of confidence in legislatures have all increased in recent years. Unlike its southern neighbor, Canada has experienced significant long-term decline in voter turnout. Until 1993, voter turnout in federal elections was consistently better than 70 percent, but by 2008, turnout fell to 58.8 percent, the lowest level ever. But Canada has an additional challenge that matters for democracy. In a country where French speakers constitute 22 percent of the total population, mostly in Quebec, the federal Conservative Party managed to form a majority government with minimal representation from that province.
This means that French-speaking Quebecois have little voice in the councils of the federal government, including on sensitive issues like relaxing gun control, strengthening the status of the monarchy, tightening up on criminal sentencing and rehabilitation, aggressive support for Israel, and the like. It will be difficult for the Conservatives to rebuild a competitive political base in Quebec, and they have shown that they can construct a governing coalition without it. Should this situation continue, the Quebecois would be effectively excluded from the opportunity to shape federal policies reflective of their own interests and needs.
A continuing democratic dysfunction of this sort, linked as it is to the question of national unity, has explosive potential. While the exclusion and marginalization of significant classes of citizens gravely undermines the health of any democracy, the exclusion and marginalization of one of the national communities in a bi-national state threatens not just the health of the democracy, but the viability of the polity itself.
David Cameron is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.