This Tuesday 11 years ago, even as the twin towers were about to collapse, men and women inside were helping each other to safety. Firefighters ran up the stairs, determined to rescue as many as they could. At the Pentagon, servicemembers pulled each other out of the rubble. And in the sky above Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a small group of passengers sacrificed themselves to take down the last would-be missile.
On that day, and in the days afterwards, when people across the country pitched in to assist the survivors and each other, Americans knew that such sacrifice, whether it be a few dollars we could spare or our very lives, was our duty, our obligation to our fellow citizens. These efforts weren’t about assuaging some sort of guilt or making us feel better; Americans simply knew that helping each other was the right thing to do. All of which brings us to last Thursday, and what, in the long-term, should be the most significant part of President Obama’s 2012 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech:
But we also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, 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. [...]
Because — because, America, we understand that this democracy is ours.
We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
As the president says, duty to our fellow citizens is a central part of American democracy and self-government. As the editors of the journal “Democracy” (where my Post colleague E.J. Dionne, Jr. is chair of the editorial committee) wrote this past spring in introducing their “Reclaiming Citizenship” feature, citizenship does not just include one’s rights, but also one’s “civic responsibility. What it means to be a true and good and productive citizen. The obligations that come along with rights. . . . The rights-obligations scales are wildly out of balance, and have been for decades.” These obligations to community and country take many forms, from private charity to participating in local affairs to giving to our fellow citizens, through taxation and other means, the education and support they need to maximize their — and our country’s — potential.
Unfortunately, as James Kloppenberg observed in the same issue of “Democracy”, “one of the saddest facts of contemporary political discourse is the ignorance of most Americans about the centrality of the concept of obligation in American history.” Founders like John Adams and James Madison insisted that duties and rights were equally important; more recently, a post-World War II consensus included the belief that increased spending and economic regulation was in all Americans’ interest. Beginning in the Reagan years, however, as the left let civic responsibility fall by the wayside, there has been a concerted effort on the right to return to the Gilded Age, not only in terms of inequality but also in the bolstering, to use the president’s words, “a freedom without a commitment to others.”
In times of struggle, though, as that fateful Tuesday in 2001 and its aftermath proved, Americans still believe in duty to each other. In fact, support for civic duty is still the default of most Americans, as demonstrated by broad support for such ideas as raising the minimum wage, stricter business regulation, and more progressive taxation. Obama’s words are a start, but he and the rest of our nation’s leaders need to follow through and restore civic duty to its proper prominence.