Citizens Divided: How a Politics of Contempt Threatens Our Democracy

Last fall, when some National Football League players protesting police violence against blacks took a knee during the national anthem, President Trump excoriated them as “sons of bitches” and urged team owners to fire them. He saw their gesture as showing contempt for the flag and, so, for the country and its veterans. No doubt Trump was speaking for many other fans who shared his outrage. This episode in our public life, with the president denouncing other citizens for actions expressing their own outrage at racial injustice, affords us an occasion for much-needed reflection on what we, as citizens, owe each other.

We can begin with an obvious point: Trump and others angry at the players’ choosing not to stand for the national anthem clearly believe Americans should stand when the anthem is played at major sporting events. In fact, we cannot make sense of the intensity of the offense they felt unless we take them to believe that all Americans have a duty to show respect for the flag and the country by rising (if they can) for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Most certainly, to Trump and other critics, the players’ behavior was not merely rude but wrong and deserved punishment. Hence, in condemning the players’ dissent, Trump invoked a conviction shared by most Americans—that citizens are obliged to respect our country, including by honoring the flag. However, Trump and a great many other Americans fail to recognize our civic duty to respect the country demands far more of us than standing for the national anthem.

When citizenship is the topic of political discussion, the focus is generally on citizenship as a legal status, a designation conferring rights guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution and laws enacted by Congress. During the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, one of the most controversial political issues was whether some illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship and eventually be allowed to enjoy those rights.

But, as illustrated by Trump’s response to the kneeling NFL players, most of us believe that citizens—as citizens—have duties as well as rights. These duties are grounded in the fact that a democracy depends on its citizens—that it needs citizens to obey the law, to participate in the processes of self-government, and, on occasion, to sacrifice for the common good. Indeed, the health of a democracy depends on the extent to which its citizens accept these practical necessities as obligations, as duties of citizens.

Because citizens have such duties, we can rightly speak of citizen as an “office,” one that is no less critical to our political system than the offices that make up—at all levels of government—the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Now, a democracy’s survival, much less its flourishing, cannot be secured merely by its citizens’ possessing basic rights such as freedom of speech. Rather, it requires citizens’ actively discharging the duties of their office—obligations that, together, constitute a general duty to respect the country of which they are citizens.

The dutiful actions of citizens are so vital to our system of government that President Obama, in his Farewell Address to the Nation, declared citizen “the most important office in a democracy.” For each of us who holds this indispensable office, then, respecting the country is our fundamental duty as a citizen.

“As models of citizenship, public officials have the severe duty to accept and respect individual citizens and to model this behavior for others.”

— J. Patrick Dobel

To be sure, while some duties of a citizen (such as paying taxes) are legal requirements, most are moral duties, whose violation warrants censure from fellow citizens though it breaks no laws. (Even a citizen’s complying with the law is a moral imperative, because laws themselves do not command obedience but only specify penalties for their infraction. The principle prescribing respect for the law is a moral norm, an essential provision of the social contract.)

While a citizen cannot be prosecuted for shirking the moral duties of her office, our democracy could not long endure if a substantial portion of our populace did not perceive them as duties and try, albeit imperfectly, to fulfill them. It is no exaggeration to say the future of our nation, in an increasingly dangerous world, hinges on how conscientious we are as citizens in respecting the country, meeting the obligations of our office.

But if the cardinal duty of a citizen is to respect the country, then to whom is that duty owed, because duties are duties to persons, either individuals or groups? These are the beneficiaries of the prescribed conduct, entitled to what is legally or morally required of those for whom they are duties.

Whether they are what a legislator owes his constituents, a doctor owes her patient, a parent owes his children, or parties to a contract owe each other, duties are obligations to people. Even duties to institutions, such as corporations and churches, are actually duties to the individuals who compose them and are harmed, or at least affronted, by their violation.

In the case of a citizen’s duty to respect the country, the duty is owed, not to an abstraction—“the country”—but to its citizens. From a moral point of view, this is an obligation to other Americans, whose collective interests are the interests of the country, which are served by this, the defining duty of a citizen. Thus, the resentment evident in Trump’s vilification of the NFL players indicates that he—and many others— felt personally insulted by the players’ actions. They saw the players as slighting them, flouting a solemn duty the players owed to them as fellow citizens.

If you are still hesitant to identify the country with its citizens, then consider this: When a soldier risks her life for her country, isn’t she doing it for us, for other Americans—who personally owe her a debt of gratitude?

Because, as Trump rightly assumes, it is the duty of every citizen to respect the country, and because, morally speaking, the country is its citizens, each of us has a duty as a citizen to respect other citizens. Because duties govern actions—what we do rather than what we feel—the duty to respect fellow citizens is the duty to treat them respectfully. As a citizen, I owe it to every other citizen to treat him or her respectfully, and every other citizen has that obligation to me.

This duty is especially important— indeed, critical—to the welfare of our democracy when we speak to and about other citizens publicly in connection with political issues. For a democracy cannot function without citizens, including public officials, engaging in constructive dialogue that is the lifeblood of the system of self-government the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us. Political philosophers call this civic engagement “democratic deliberation,” which requires citizens to address each other as equals, debating each other, listening to each other, bargaining with each other, and striving together to reach rational solutions to the problems and challenges we face as citizens.

Democratic deliberation cannot occur when citizens fail to respect each other, when they maliciously attack other citizens for expressing divergent views—or when elected officials denigrate politicians, media commentators, and other citizens who publicly criticize or disagree with them. Just as in every other domain of life, name-calling ends the conversation. But in a democracy the conversation has to go on. Opponents have to communicate, they have to argue, they have to haggle, they have to compromise.

In short, they have to deliberate. Because the democratic conversation must go on, citizens must restrain their antipathies in order to take part, with political friends and foes, in the processes by which “we the people” govern ourselves, protect our freedoms, and seek to meet our collective needs. These processes demand that, in pursuing our often-competing goals, we “respect the country,” treating other citizens with respect. For those who wield governmental power, this responsibility weighs even heavier.

As J. Patrick Dobel notes in his sagacious book, Public Integrity, “As models of citizenship, public officials have the severe duty to accept and respect individual citizens and to model this behavior for others.”

I am well aware that, in our current political environment, all this may sound idealistic or even naïve. I realize that it may seem as if Trump’s daily Twitter assaults on fellow citizens, along with the vicious “trolling” that is a fixture of social media and “comments” sections on websites, have created a “new normal” for our political culture. That may be the case. But if so, it is not a sustainable “normal.”

Deteriorating civility in our political discourse is not just a regrettable feature of public life in this period of our history. Rather, it is a threat—a grave threat—to our democracy. When millions of citizens, including some we have elected to lead us, casually and habitually treat other citizens with contempt, they not only violate their primary duty as citizens—to respect the country—but they undermine the political system and civic values that are truly what make America great. I fear the country will retain its greatness only if we break free of the politics of contempt and recognize that we as citizens have an urgent duty to treat fellow citizens with at least as much respect as we show the flag.

Dana Radcliffe teaches ethics in public policy and engineering at Syracuse University, and is the Day Family Senior Lecturer of Business Ethics at Cornell.

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Citation for this content: ExecutiveMPA@Syracuse, The Online Executive Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.