How We Define What Citizenship Is Matters Now More Than Ever


From top: Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan, who has called for regulation of social media; Bryan Wall

When we think of citizenship and democracy we tend to think of two interrelated aspects of human existence without which we would be at the mercy of the wider world.

The broad environment and other people would be construed as threats to our being. What citizenship and democracy purportedly offer us is a form of protection against those who would do us harm.

It also offers us a method of deciding, as equitably as possible, how society should function; what institutions to construct and uphold, what rights are to be formulated and supported, where the state ends and the nation begins, and, probably most importantly, who is to count in all of this.

The above is what we have been taught about citizenship and democracy. Reality, obviously, is more complicated.

Citizenship and democracy have never been as cut and dry as we have been led to believe. A hierarchy inherent in both has always existed.

When politicians and elites lament the crumbling, crisis, or destruction of democracy they often mean something other than what appears to be the case.

It usually means that citizens have taken it upon themselves to decide what it means to be a citizen and that no longer should they be constrained by artificial limits placed upon them by their predecessors in government and by their current leaders.

Those in power fear this and always have.

When the United States was in the process of being founded these fears motivated the Founding Fathers. During the debates of the constitutional convention in 1787 the delegates took it upon themselves to ensure that the common people would have their rights curtailed.

It was insisted upon that the “people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” Therefore, the “rich and wellborn” were to be given a permanent share in government in order to keep the masses in check.

The new government, it was argued, was to be constructed in order “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

The majority, who had just won the Revolutionary War for those now debating the merits of democracy, and finding it lacking, were to become lesser citizens compared to the landed gentry.

James Madison put this explicitly, stating that “The states ought to be placed under the control of the general government — at least as much so as they formerly were under the king and British parliament”, in order to ensure a return to the previous oligarchic state of affairs and to protect the agricultural, financial, and land interests of the new ruling elite.

This is nothing remotely new in the history of revolutions and democracy. It was seen in the French Revolution and also here in Ireland. In both cases, after a successful revolution by the masses, their new leaders secured their new-found power by fortifying it behind new constitutional powers or ensuring that their patrons were protected and had unbridled dominance in the new state.

In Ireland the latter was especially the case when we see how the Catholic Church was effectively given free rein over the new state.

Political leaders and elites are more than happy to live with a state of affairs such as this. A form of citizenship and democracy that is highly constrained and differentiated along economic, racial, religious, or other lines, is perfectly acceptable to them.

What is not acceptable is a situation in which the mass of people decides for themselves that the current state of affairs is not to their liking.

Whereas in the past rights of theirs were either undermined or completely denied, they are now no longer willing to accept this. They are asking for democracy, as it is defined in the dictionary, to be fully implemented.

Such actions, however, are not conducive to the functioning of governments. Instead of being seen as an active and engaged populous, those wishing to claim their rights are deemed responsible for causing a “crisis of democracy”.

This was how the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s were described report issued by the Trilateral Commission that was published in 1975. In both Europe and the United States parts of the population that had been previously apathetic had now risen up and began to become politically active and engaged.

These groups were students, ethnic and racial minorities, feminists, and those generally striving for a more egalitarian and open society.

To elites, however, this was a major problem. In the report, such engagement was described as “a breakdown of traditional means of social control, a delegitimation of political and other forms of authority, and an overload of demands on government, exceeding its capacity to respond.”

With the breakdown of the means of “traditional social control”, especially the control of the state, citizens came to “resist any kind of social control” that they saw as a form of hierarchy.

Also, with better and wider access to information, it had become, in the words of the authors, “difficult if not impossible to maintain the traditional distance that was deemed necessary to govern.”

In turn, this broader access to information and a more extensive and increased understanding of democracy meant that “it [was] difficult to prevent access and restrict information,” as had previously been the case.

In this light the media had, unfortunately, become “self-regulating” and was also able “to resist pressure from financial or governmental interests.” The media had become informative and critical instead of just parroting what they had been told by governments and their mandarins.

Such a state of affairs could not be countenanced so a solution was proffered by the authors. Their starting point was that the common understanding of democracy was incorrect.

Democracy could not be open to everyone. There had to be, as had always been the case in Europe and the United States, a “subtle screening of participants and demands.”

A “crisis of democracy” was caused by the breakdown of this screening process. To put it simply, too many people were calling for their citizenship and democratic rights to be upheld. Both had to be limited to certain dominant groups in societies else the entire system would fail.

The solution to this problem was that a return to the “screening process” would be needed. People would simply have to show “more self-restraint” in order for democracy to function appropriately.

A re-emergence of traditional values and more subtle methods of control than outright violence would be needed. One only has to look at the rise of neo-liberalism in Europe and the United States from the 1970s onwards to see that the aforementioned subtle methods of control were enacted.

Market discipline found itself serving a dual function; its purely economic functions in ensuring that the market remained profitable and above society, and its function as a judge as to who and what was valuable in society.

This latter function continues to be a highly effective way of keeping calls for social change in check. Given that the idea of everything having a price based on its utility has pervaded our society, in many cases there tends to be a reluctance to engage in questioning the system as it currently functions because of the uncertainty of profit, be it economic or other more ethereal kinds of profits.

A kind of cynicism reigns in many quarters, something that the Left has failed to recognise or counter.

Meanwhile, democracy is again seen to be in crisis with the cause this time being the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. With Trump’s election victory, many in mainstream politics were shocked given their certainty that Hillary Clinton would win.

What they didn’t predict, given their own insular political views and concepts of who counts, was a widespread opposition to Clinton and the Democrats. Trump, although running on the Republican ticket, was seen as someone outside the standard political dichotomy.

His election victory is clearly a result of those who have been ignored for decades by the political system and those inside it. This bucks a trend that was noted by Irish political scientist, Peter Mair. His argument was that democracy had become “hollow” because citizens and politicians and elites had all failed to continue engaging with the system.

He believed that citizens had retreated behind the protection of their rights therefore leaving leaders to do what they saw fit, resulting in a technocratically lead society.

With citizens being too apathetic to take part in the political system as it was designed, it was now to be left to those appropriately qualified to govern for people instead. Regardless of election mandates and promises, those in power would govern and decide according to what they believed was most appropriate.

Therefore, it can be argued that any time citizens decide to actively engage with the political system in some manner — be it protesting, voting, or calling for revolution — where they had not done so before, the system cannot cope and leaders cannot permit it.

Hence we have the “crisis of democracy” of the past and the current one in which “too much democracy” is blamed for Trump’s election victory. Advocates of the latter theory are covering old ground.

Yascha Mounk’s arguments, although lauded as “brilliant”, are incorrect, according to these advocates, when he ascribes the current problems to a lack of democracy. Instead, the issue is one of “hyper-democratization”, i.e., too much democracy,as Joshua Geltzer writes.

The problem faced today is a “shift away from the mediated, checked republic” of the America of old. Without this, we have now “unleashed direct democracy”. Geltzer longs for the days when leaders “didn’t necessarily represent us” who “mediated” democratic participation and citizenship rights with their “cooler heads.”

He bemoans the loss of “intermediaries” in the media; “responsible newspaper editors, respected television news anchors and others who acted as gatekeepers”.

Nonetheless, he admits that this was an imperfect system as the amount of respect shown to the media could result in a small number of people holding exceptional influence over the public.

In this regard he lamented the fact that a journalist such as Walter Cronkite was able to “sway much of the nation by deciding that he’s against a particular war”, in this case the Vietnam War which obviously deserved unwavering public support.

Social media has disrupted this standard form of mediation. By “bypassing and drowning out the traditional mediators of newspaper and television” democracy is demanding too much and is giving us horrific results.

Geltzer is not someone on the fringes of society. He is the executive director and visiting professor of law at Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection as well as having served on the National Security Council.

People in his position hold influence and power, and their recommendations carry a great deal of sway. All of his arguments could have been lifted directly from the Trilateral Commission report already mentioned.

We see in this the very nature of the political system as it has been constructed: A filtering mechanism exists in order to keep certain groups of people outside of democratic participation and beyond the reach of the full rights of citizenship. When this is disrupted, a “crisis of democracy” occurs. It happened in the sixties and seventies, and it is happening now.

Of course, this is not confined to the United States. In Ireland the water charge protests were met with the same kind of reaction from the political leaders then in power.

Labour, having once been the mainstream voice of the working class, were now decrying the protests.

Michael Noonan, Fine Gael’s then Minister for Finance, casually stated that him and his government “govern[ed] for the reasonable people,” the implication being that anyone who did not support their neo-liberal policies was being unreasonable at best, and a threat at worst.

Jumping ahead to today it is no different. Realising that social media has allowed people to bypass the traditional methods of “mediation”, the government is now calling for regulation of said technologies.

Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, has called for such regulation. She argues that a “very real threat to western democracy comes” in the form of Facebook and Twitter.

Not-so-subtly stirring up Russophobia, she writes that social media has “the potential to be used by foreign bodies to affect the outcomes of our national elections and referendums”, pointing out the “growing body of evidence” of Russian influence over Brexit and Trump’s election.

In order to combat such threats she states that she “will be asking my colleagues at Cabinet to prioritise the introduction of legislation and regulation in this area at both a national and EU level”.

The Press Ombudsman also called for regulation of social media.. Similar to Madigan’s statement, they have called for the “introduction of a regulatory system for social media” for the reason that they are “subject to no regulation, independent or otherwise.”

Another reason given is that there needs to be a method of “redress for people who believe that information about themselves posted on social media is inaccurate or misleading.”

Their press release ends with the threat that “If social media cannot or will not put in place such structures they should be made subject to national and/or international governmental oversight.”

The dangers inherent in such a system, in which people who merely believe there is inaccurate information about them on social media can have sanctions imposed, are obvious.

It is also self-evident why such regulations are being lauded in the first place.

Social media has allowed people to bypass the traditional methods of information distribution. It has also allowed them to collectively organise across and above geographical boundaries, divisions, and distances.

Hence, we have one part of the “crisis of democracy”. Once people have learned to organise and seek out non-mainstream sources of information, these same people will shortly be asking for the democratisation of society and for their rights to be upheld; both of which it is assumed by the uninformed and the wilfully ignorant to already exist in abundance.

Any calls for the above, then, are merely seen as attempts to undermine society, in which democracy and equality reign, by usurpers.

Democracy and citizenship have always been differentiated according to supposedly inherent traits in people such as their “nature”, as construed by those in power; their ethic or national origins, their religious beliefs, their skin colour, or a mix of all of the above.

Those in power can continue to define citizenship according to these criteria in which certain classes of people are kept beyond the reach of basic rights and entitlements.

When said groups decide that their rights do actually matter and that they themselves, as people, matter, we see the “crisis of democracy” emerge.

Denying people their basic rights results in anger and, eventually, backlash. Sometimes this takes the form of wide-ranging social movements, such as the anti-war and civil rights movements.

Other times, it results in the election of Donald Trump and the surge in popularity of right-wing movements in general, such as the Alternative für Deutschland (A.F.D.) and Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (F.P.O) in Germany and Austria respectively.

How we define citizenship and democracy is then clearly of great importance. If we define them as being filtered processes of governance in order to ensure that certain groups can never have their voices heard, then perpetual inequality is ensured.

If we can expand upon them and refine them as an inclusive all-encompassing foundation upon which to build a truly egalitarian and fair society then we will be a long way towards defeating the rise of right-wing parties and movements.

We will also have gone a long way towards unseating those who have wielded power over all of us for far too long at our individual expense and at the expense of the planet. For the moment, “crises” abound.

Bryan Wall is a PhD candidate in the departments of sociology and philosophy in University College Cork. His interests are in citizenship, human rights, democratic and political theory, and the history of Zionism. Read his work here


11 thoughts on “How We Define What Citizenship Is Matters Now More Than Ever

  1. nellyb

    Even if a heavy handed ‘method of “redress’ is introduced for abuse on social media, it would be short lived. With modern ‘fixation on compensation’ it would clog up courts with chasers of opportunistic windfalls, given vast memberships on social platforms. Or platform owners will decide it’s not worth it and wrap up with it all together. I think our decision makers are just being populist with proposals like that, I don’t believe they believe it would work.

    1. SOQ

      GDPR means ambulance chasers have been replaced by privacy data chasers, especially in IT sales.

      Y2K all over again.

  2. Lilly

    Interesting! However, if you’ve ever worked with a group that included people of mixed abilities, you might reach the conclusion that filtering isn’t always a bad thing. That’s not an elitist viewpoint, just a pragmatic one. Not that I’m in favour of Josepha Madigan’s self-serving nonsense.

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