“Nobody is born in this country with genes that somehow understand and internalize what a democracy is, why it’s valuable, what’s expected of them as a citizen; we’ve gotta teach them. But we’re not teaching it. We are failing to pass on the culture, the political culture of democracy. And that to me is the real warning.” ~ Richard Haass
On this observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as we pause as a nation to consider the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. King, I want to use this occasion to direct our attention to the concerns of Richard Haass regarding the obligations of American citizenship in a democratic republic now in peril. Even as MLK Jr. sought to bring forth the “better angels of our nature” (that Lincoln referred to in his first inaugural address), so has Mr. Haass spent most of his life in pursuit of such civility and dedication to authentic American citizenship that upholds democracy, justice and the common good.
He is a former Ambassador and recent President of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. He is also an author. His most recent book was released a year ago in late January of 2023and became an instant NY Times Bestseller. It’s title is a play on words of a foundational document of American government, the Bill of Rights. His book, The Bill of Obligations, has the subtitle, The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.
A recent PBS program, A Citizen’s Guide to Preserving Democracy, takes a deep dive into those habits of good citizenship in an interview with Haass. It presents the viewer with an in depth look at not the “rights” of American citizens that occupies so much of our myopic thinking and self centered behavior, but rather on the “obligations” of American citizenship. Haass presents us with a list of responsibilities that Dr. King would most assuredly affirm, obligations that must be taught and practiced in order to protect and preserve the democratic system of government upon which this nation was established.
The emphasis on what it means to be a good citizen displaying those “better angels of our nature” hearkens back to not only Lincoln’s address, but also the inaugural address of President Kennedy. In that speech he implored a nation of citizens to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask rather what you can do for your country.” Or, in other words, be givers rather than takers. Dwell not so much upon your individual rights, but rather upon the responsibilities you have as citizen that strengthen and vitalize the democracy that strives for a just society for all. Lincoln, JFK, MLK Jr. and Richard Haass all challenge a nation of diverse peoples to live up to their responsibility to be wise, faithful and moral stewards of the democracy they have inherited and active participants in fulfilling the dream of “a more perfect Union.”
With that hope for the future and an eye to our past, let us remember today that the dream of an ideal nation with a form of governance of, by and for the people, a dream that caused the American Revolution, first began to take form with the Articles of Confederation. While the Articles were enough to birth a nation at war, in the long run they produced a central government that was paralyzed and ineffectual. And so it was that in May of 1787 twelve of the thirteen states sent representatives to Philadelphia to begin the work of redesigning government.
The chief goal of the Constitutional Convention was to create a government with enough power to act on a national level, but without so much power that fundamental rights would be at risk. This led to the concept of separating the power of government into three branches, and then to include checks and balances on those powers so that no one branch of government could rule over another. To appease both larger and smaller states, the legislative branch would be composed of a Senate with equal representation from each state, and a House of Representatives representing the people as apportioned by population. The Constitution would also call for an independent federal judiciary and an executive branch in which the President would be elected by an Electoral College.
On September 17, 1787 when the final draft was presented to the states, only 39 of the 55 delegates were willing to sign the new document. While at least one delegate refused to sign because the Constitution codified and protected slavery and the slave trade, the vast majority of dissenters objected to the lack of a ‘bill of rights.’ While the Constitution was eventually ratified (it took 9 of the 13 states ratifying for the Constitution to take effect), some states continued to push for amendments that would insure civic rights. In the end, James Madison would go on to introduce twelve amendments to the First Congress in 1789. Ten of these would become what we now consider to be the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution ratified December 15, 1791.
Fast forward 233 years to the current state of affairs in the nation dreamt of by those Founding Fathers. Throughout those years countless thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost both abroad and at home in the defense of democracy and preservation of the Union against forces both foreign and domestic that would distort and destroy them. Now in a pivotal election year of 2024 in the midst of a partisan war of words and ideas with rampant misinformation, disinformation and appeals to the baser demons of our nature wreaking havoc upon minds and emotions, Americans will decide the fate of a democracy now teetering on the edge of an authoritarian abyss.
At such a fateful time, it would be well for all citizens of this fragile Union to honor their obligation to practice the habits of good citizenship needed to preserve our system of democratic governance that is still an ongoing experiment in a hostile world. To that end I direct our attention to the PBS presentation of “A Citizen’s Guide to Preserving Democracy.” Follow that with an addition of The Bill of Obligations to one’s library, and we are taking steps to move America back from the abyss. As a carrot to entice one to read Haass’ book, I close with this recommendation from Anne Applebaum, author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism:
“There is no question that the United States faces dangerous threats from without; the greatest peril to the country, however, comes from within. In The Bill of Obligations, bestselling author Richard Haass argues that, to solve our climate of division and safeguard our democracy, the very idea of citizenship must be revised and expanded. The Bill of Rights is at the center of our Constitution, yet the most intractable conflicts often emerge from cases that, as former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out, “are not about right versus wrong. They are about right versus right.”
There is a way forward: to place obligations on the same footing as rights. The ten obligations that Haass introduces here reenvision what it means to be an American citizen, to commit to our fellow citizens and counter the growing apathy, anger, and violence that threaten us all.
Through an expert blend of civics, history, and political analysis, this book illuminates how Americans across the political spectrum can rediscover how to contribute to and reshape this country’s future.”
Were Dr. King still with us today, I trust that The Bill of Obligations would be part of his recommended reading list. We can honor his legacy in 2024 by learning and practicing the Ten Habits of Good Citizens as a guide along the long road to preserving democracy and forming that more perfect Union.