Good Citizenship Is Out Of Date

Norms of good citizenship have been declining. These norms are a crucial piece of social technology vital to the health of local communities and institutions. While good citizenship norms are certainly still present in America today, they are substantially weaker than they were in the 1930s-1950s. This is not because of contemporary people’s personal failings; rather, it’s because we’re still operating from a foundation of norms that were built for the New Deal era, and so are not adapted to today’s conditions.

A society’s norms lead to better or worse outcomes depending on how well they fit the circumstances. For example, in a small town, politeness norms often involve greeting everyone you pass and sometimes chatting a bit; this functions well because there are few people and they mostly know and care about each other. In New York City, this would be utterly impractical, so instead politeness norms demand ignoring passersby. Less adaptive norms will naturally lose force as people notice that they don’t lead to good outcomes. Norms can be adapted to physical characteristics (like population), to the landscape of institutions (contrast American vs Mexican norms of bribing police officers, which are adapted to the local police institutions), or even to other norms (contrast American vs Japanese norms of public cleanliness, which are adapted to local levels of conscientiousness and trust).

In the mid-1900s, the norms of good citizenship were richer and more powerful than today. There was a shared idea that the good citizen was an active and integral part of his or her (norms differed somewhat by gender, but there was more similarity than difference) local community, as captured by arch-Americanist Norman Rockwell in his iconic Freedom of Speech. The good citizen was supposed to be involved with organizing at least one local civic organization, perhaps a church, or a local relief society, or a fraternal club like the Shriners. My grandfather made a point of serving on the board of the St. Louis chapter of the ACLU and writing incessant letters about local issues to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, while his wife was heavily involved with the St. Louis planetarium and science center. For them, these things were part of a larger project through which engaged citizens would do their part to bring about a better world.

(I don’t mean to imply that everyone was always, or even usually, following such norms. For most people, these things are aspirational, like the contemporary norm that one should read the article before sharing an inflammatory link. However, even aspirational norms can have a notable effect on most people—think of how the idea of homeownership affects even people who rent, or how the idea of launching a startup affects programmers who have never founded a company—and an influential minority will make a serious project of living up to the ideal.)

Over time, society changed, and the norms became less adaptive and thus less powerful. For example, 12 Angry Men, a classic of 1950s American civics, shows how a good juror was meant to behave: a bulwark of Enlightenment justice shielding the common man from the passions of the mob, independent-minded, reasonable, and charitable. (I don’t think fiction determines these patterns, but I do think it reflects them, and sometimes crystallizes them into their most coherent forms.) Since then, as jury trials have been dropping off in favor of plea bargains, these norms have become less relevant. This pattern has played out many times, in ways large and small: some part of society changes, so the norms relating to that part become less functional or less important, and so the norms atrophy.

As a result of this process, norms of good citizenship are not nearly as satisfying to aspire to as they once were. Today’s citizenship norms tend to be negative rather than positive: don’t be racist, don’t damage the environment, don’t fall for fake news. The few positive directives tend to advocate vague and passive things like “being informed”, or at most participation in a large faceless mass, such as voting or marching in protests. There is no conception that a good citizen should build, in the way that a citizen of old would aspire to support the opera house or be a voice at City Council debates or what have you. There are still people who build local institutions, of course, but when I talk to them they mostly seem motivated by local pride, and not by the idea of participating in an overarching national or civilizational project that motivated my grandfather’s generation. Not coincidentally, this call is now much more rarely felt by upper-class or upper-middle class people, who today often see themselves as too cosmopolitan to be involved with local institutions.

In Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, note how establishing that Mr. Smith is a popular Boy Scout leader is instantly sufficient to tell the audience that he’s an upstanding, competent pillar of the community, more worthy of power than the corrupt insiders who know how to work the system. His role as a local institution-builder makes him part of the living sinew of civic society, and it is morally right (if not necessarily practical) that he should become a Senator. Today’s culture doesn’t have any roles with quite the same cachet.

A large reason for the decline in norms around building local communities is that there is a new source of competition for organizational talent: building online communities. From personal experience, I know that leading local and online communities can be socially rewarding in similar ways. So, they will draw from a strongly overlapping talent pool. While online communities fulfill some of the functions of local communities, they don’t fulfill nearly all of them. Building online communities is not a part of good citizenship ideals in the way that building local communities used to be (try to imagine a modern remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington where Mr. Smith is a beloved forum moderator), largely because we don’t know how to make a complete civil society out of online institutions.

The decline of these norms is a loss, and our society is the poorer for it. However, they cannot be restored by simply repeating what our ancestors did; the reason the old norms fell out of favor in the first place is that they are no longer as fit for their purpose. If similar norms are to exist in the future—and I believe they can—then they must be built to function in the social and technological landscape of today.

3 thoughts on “Good Citizenship Is Out Of Date”

  1. It is interesting to consider what visions exist in our society of the good ordinary citizen – something comparable to the ideal of Henry Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men. I really cannot think of any. There are certainly many extraordinary heroes put forth – e.g. superheroes, elite soldiers, anti-corporate crusaders – but few ordinary ones. I wonder what this means.

  2. Among the necessary norms for a civic society, it seems that you need norms for who intervenes and how much. Fiction and non-fiction are populated with modern characters executing a bumbling, near-sighted intervention on civic affairs. Some of the people represented in Bent Flyvbjerg’s “Rationality and Power” come to mind.

    Older civic role models, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, may not be extremely politically shrewd, but they know what is actually good for the community. They’re paying attention to the local landscape, rather than ideologically spawned policy positions like “Financial institutions are bad”. George Bailey runs a bank, despite the villain of movie being a banker/industrialist. It’s because he understands the exact importance of a local institution that’s he’s both unwilling to let it go under and move to the city, or let it become corrupted by broader financial forces.

  3. I think you could absolutely have a “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” scenario with someone like Scott Alexander from SlateStarCodex / AstralCodexTen. I’d actually pay to watch a movie about him trying to be a Senator!

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