Citizenship: a casualty of modern politics?

The other night in his speech at the Democratic National Convention President Obama hit on something that crystallizes a crucial philosophical difference between today’s Democratic and Republican parties: the concept of citizenship.

Citizenship is a happy balance between the independent striving that forms the foundation of successful capitalism, and the sense of commitment to community that results in safety nets, health care for all, public transportation, and all the other things that don’t make a profit and thus need government.

“We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known,” Obama said. “But we also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”

How refreshing to hear “citizenship” raised in a major political speech, even briefly, in the context of the Right’s idiotic squawking about the “socialism” bogeyman and the Left’s endlessly embarrassing inability to cogently and powerfully frame its arguments. Citizenship used to be a staple of grammar school education, but for some time now it’s been missing from Democrats’ rhetoric – and also, tragically, from the Republican conception of America.

Those shrieks about “socialism” you hear from the right-wing mental ward day after day are really responses to what we used to call citizenship. And those modest government-sponsored programs that seek to assure a humane civilization – those programs we have, and those we would like to have – are at bottom nothing but manifestations of citizenship, which, in our modern conception, refers to membership in a body politic with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that pertain.

Simple enough.