In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course…In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger…And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” ~ Excerpts from President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
“The most important political office is that of private citizen.” – Louis Brandeis
“A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” ~ Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked what the 1787 Constitutional Convention produced
In the autumn of 1960, as I was beginning my freshman year in high school, I stood up on the bus on the way to school and addressed my classmates on the reasons their parents should vote for John F. Kennedy for President. That moment was the beginning of decades of engagement in citizenship. What I have learned over those decades is that the success or failure of our country is not in the hands of our elected officials; it is in the hands of We the People.
As we are just days away from a major election — one of the most extraordinary in our history — I thought it timely to explore what American citizenship means.
The Responsibilities of Citizenship
The responsibilities of citizenship — of governing ourselves — are contained in the legacy passed on by our Founders. It’s up to each citizen to shoulder their part to continue to build, strengthen and enhance what is still a very young, although exceptional, nation. It is our mandate to do the hard work to ensure the survival and success of the great experiment called the United States of America. Because while American citizenship grants certain “inalienable” rights, those rights will remain inalienable only if citizens fulfill the responsibilities that come with self-governing. Those responsibilities include:
The right of citizens to vote has been a Constitutional winding road throughout our history. Some call for an amendment to state clearly that each citizen has the right to vote, even though there are several amendments that state pretty explicitly who has the right to vote in the U.S. Still, many citizens struggle to exercise that right due to controversial state election laws and downright nefarious means such as propaganda, voter suppression, and voter restriction.
But even for Americans who have clear paths to voting, an anemic percentage of the population actually vote. Reportedly, up until the 20th century, voting statistics in Presidential Election years sometimes hit a relatively healthy 70-80% of the population; after 1900, however, even with expanded voting rights, the percentage of citizens that voted dropped to an average of roughly 50%. Voter turnout in off-Presidential Election years has been even lower. We the People should not take the chance that consistent low voter turnout could turn against us in a use-it-or-lose-it-scenario. On the other hand, there are some that believe voting should be a citizenship mandate, just like paying taxes or serving on a jury.
We have been blessed to live in a nation in which the people self-govern, but many of us have grown complacent. We need to step up our game and fulfill our basic duty to vote for those who will be making the important decisions that will rule our lives now and into the future. That includes voting not only for those who will serve as President, but also for candidates for U.S. Senators and Representatives, as well as Governors and other state representatives, right down to our local elected officials that include county office-holders, mayors, and town, village and school board members. Every single person who runs for any elected position is someone who will affect our lives to some extent; and as self-governing citizens we must decide through our votes who those persons should be.
So here we are. Election Day is just around the corner – Tuesday, November 3. Amazingly, a record-breaking more than 60 million-and-counting Americans have either already mailed in their ballots (including yours truly), or are currently participating in early voting.
For those who have not yet voted, here are some tips and resources that you might find helpful.
- For questions on registration and voting regulations in your area or to find your polling place or ballot drop-off location, contact your local Election Office / Board of Elections: Find My State or Local Election Office.
- To report incidents of voter intimidation, which is against the law, call the Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE or 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (en Español).
- If you are still holding on to your absentee ballot, the U.S. Postal Service says it cannot guarantee that it will reach its designated address in time to count, depending in which state you reside. To find out where to drop off your ballot, contact your local election office. These two websites might also prove helpful: Vote.org and Rolling Stone.
Plan your vote; it’s your most powerful and precious right as a citizen.
- Know your Early and Election Day polling places and ballot drop-off locations.
- Plan how you will get there.
- If voting in person, wear your mask, hand sanitize and keep your distance from others. Same if you have to get out of your car or walk to a ballot drop-off location. Some in-person lines are long; bring a snack, a book, an extra mask and hand sanitizer; don’t forget your cell phone, wallet, keys and pack extra facial tissues. (Okay, sorry if I sound like your mother; sometimes I can’t help it.)
So, while I’m thrilled that millions of citizens are voting early, despite numerous obstacles in some states, I’m not happy that so many must stand in lines for hours to ensure that their votes are counted. We need to find a safer and more secure, efficient and consistent method of voting. After we have elected our representatives, we need to take up how we vote with them.
Informing and Educating
To self-govern effectively, it is essential that citizens are well-informed. Thus, good citizenship begins at home and continues in school. Learning U.S. and world history, and knowing what is in the U.S. Constitution and your respective state constitution are vital.
I admit that as a schoolgirl I learned the most about history during the year in high school that I had a crush on my young, handsome and very cool history teacher, and worked hard to impress him. My grades soared! But history teachers really just have to make the subject of history interesting, exciting and relevant to the lives of students. We have a close family friend who is such a history teacher. He has motivated his students by setting high standards; making history a subject to be respected and valued; and offering stimulating and exciting projects, artifacts and field trips that bring history alive. His enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of history inspires his students. (That he is also young, handsome and very cool is quite beside the point…)
We Americans should also strive to be well informed about current events and issues and how they affect our lives. With all the outlets available to us for information, there should be no reason to be in the dark about anything.
Obstacles to overcome include making time to inform ourselves, and then sorting through the cacophony of news, opinions, misinformation and disinformation. We need to solve the problem of providing broadband to rural areas, because we need everyone on board if we are to self-govern effectively and fairly. Everyone must figure out the first obstacle for themselves; but I like the Pulitzer-prize winning PolitiFact (for coverage of the 2008 Presidential election) for helping with the second. You are also invited to visit or revisit my posts on How To Hire A President – Part 1 and Part 2. Candidates are not perfect, and they might not be the candidates we want; but some candidates are better than others and will help to deliver the policies, laws, and even the Supreme Court decisions we prefer. Failure to adequately inform ourselves of the issues and the candidates’ stances, or deciding not to vote, can prove disastrous. Election results have both short-term and long-term consequences.
As to the rural broadband issue, we need to elect officials who will get this done.
Here are some ways to engage:
- Volunteer in the community or on a political campaign.
- Contact your elected representatives in national, state and local government and express your opinion: Senators, Representatives, Governors, etc.
- Write letters to the editor about timely topics.
- Share your views (with substance and civility) on social media.
- Join the local committee of your political party.
- Pick a cause and get involved.
- Run for office.
Adhering / Cooperating
To be a responsible citizen also means obeying the laws of the land, as well as state and local laws. Most of us come into contact with our state’s rules of the road, including honoring speed limits, using seatbelts, not jaywalking, maintaining current driver’s licenses/car registration/auto insurance, etc. And we are familiar with paying federal, state and local income, sales, property and other taxes. We serve on juries. We obey no smoking, littering and loitering ordinances; and so on.
Other laws address more serious offenses, such as theft, burglary, libel, slander, assault, homicide, embezzlement, human and drug trafficking, among other felonies. Most laws are defined as either state or federal. The law that is stated in the Constitution is treason.
Of course, no discussion of law abiding would be complete without touching on the one violation that has become a time-honored and integral part of our society, and that is civil disobedience. You know, that thing our Founders did that led to that war that resulted in the birth of our nation. The late, great Representative and civil rights activist John Lewis called it “good trouble.” The earmarks of civil disobedience include public non-violent protest, objections based on conscience, and acceptance of the consequences that could involve jail time. At times the consequences have been much worse than jail, and illegal or immoral. The protests of my generation that involved civil disobedience included the anti-Vietnam Conflict protests, the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights Movement (sit-ins, resisting the draft, marches, strikes, etc.). Incidents of civil disobedience have inspired legislation (the 1965 Voting Rights Act) and could even affect Supreme Court decisions.
It is also imperative that Americans pull together in times of national emergencies, as we did in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, for example. There were inconveniences associated with enhanced security measures, but most Americans cooperated with them for the sake of safety and security of our homeland. The same should hold true with the horrific pandemic we are going through; the simple acts of wearing face-masks, practicing social distancing and washing our hands can mean the difference between spreading or ending the pandemic. Let’s not choose the latter.
When thinking about serving our country, the first thing that usually comes to mind is military service. Our nation was born out of the ashes of war, and since then the U.S. has engaged in some major wars that have built and defended it, as well as defended our allied nations. Without our military, our country could not have survived. It is for that reason that we honor our active-duty soldiers and that veterans may be honored by burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Other ways to serve America include devoting yourself to a tour in The Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. These organizations aim to strengthen alliances between the United States and countries around the world, as well as help strengthen the U.S. and its territories. While they are volunteer-based, some benefits are provided and the experiences can shape one as a person as well as identify future career paths.
America was built by immigrants. My family’s ancestors were immigrants. Our nation has long been known as a “melting pot.” Our country is different from the rest of the world because it is made up of the rest of the world. Sadly, many immigrants have been persecuted, and that goes against the spirit of America. Many immigrants that are persecuted in modern times are responsible for putting food on our tables and taking care of our children. They take on jobs that most American citizens do not want because they want to make America their country and are willing to work hard toward that goal.
Immigrants to the U.S. that desire to become citizens will have to observe some of the responsibilities of citizenship, such as paying taxes and obeying the laws. To prepare optimally for citizenship, they can read the U.S. Constitution, educate and inform themselves about U.S. history and current issues, and be of service to their communities.
United We Stand
Prior to the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1858, which launched the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his “house divided” speech. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Lincoln. Perhaps he was inspired by those words in Matthew 12:25 of the Bible.
The point was — and remains today — that our nation cannot function if it is divided. And that brings us to the present. If We the People are to self-govern, we all need to come to some sort of agreement on how to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, and subsequently restore our economy. Those are America’s priorities, and they are intrinsically connected. Not only are they national security threats, but impediments to making progress on other issues and returning to normalcy.
Our country is called the United States, not the Divided States. Its motto is E pluribus unum, classic Latin for, “Out of Many, One.” That is the concept that has enabled us to meet Benjamin Franklin’s challenge to keep our Republic for nearly two and a half centuries. We can continue to keep it by fulfilling our responsibility to self-govern, and casting our votes on or before next Tuesday, November 3. As the late Marvel mastermind, Stan Lee, used to say, Excelsior! (It’s also the motto of my great state of New York!) It means, “ever upward.”
Until next time,