What is citizenship?

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Photo: Cole Gibson

In our present time of political upheaval around the globe, the central questions of any political society are once more in the foreground. Central to these is the question of what it truly means to be part of a political society, to play one’s part in this comedy we call politics. In most constitutional countries today, the citizen, the most basic piece in the larger puzzle that is the body politick, fulfils this role. What does it mean to be a citizen, and furthermore, what is citizenship, the state of being a citizen? Citizenship is an old concept, one that can be traced back to the earliest polities, from the Ancient Greek πόλις to the varying degrees of Roman citizen, through concepts of medieval subjecthood, to the Renaissance and modern understandings of citizenship within the Westphalian empires and nation-states that have been the norm in the West since the mid-seventeenth century.

Today our definitions of citizenship are primarily two-fold, founded upon both ius sanguinis and ius soli. Jus sanguinis is the understanding that one’s legal status as a citizen is based solely upon one’s ancestry, one’s blood. As an American citizen who has at times, and will certainly again, prefer to live overseas in the U.K., should any of my future children be born beyond the borders of the United States, they will automatically be United States citizens, having inherited that citizenship from me, their father. However, should they be born in the United Kingdom, the children of a permanent resident of that country, they will have also inherited British citizenship through ius soli, having been born on British soil.

These two sub-classifications of citizenship are straightforward enough, and reasonable means to define what makes a person a citizen. Yet a citizen is not just an individual who happens to have either been born in one country, born to a parent from a country, or who has resided in a particular country for an extended period of time. A citizen is also an active participant in their government. The chief way a citizen can partake in politics, can wield the power that comes with their citizenship, is through voting. Without the right to vote, citizenship is but a muted title, a lame duck of a word.

Here in the United States, the most fundamental definition of who can vote simply considers age and time spent in a particular state. In most cases, an American citizen can vote in their state if they are 18 years of age and have resided in that state for at least 90 days. Yet politicians who see their only hope of maintaining power resides in further limiting who amongst the citizenry can vote have begun to pass legislation restricting voting rights from a wide swath of citizens. In Missouri, a citizen must present a state issued ID card when arriving at their voting precinct, yet that state issued ID card can only be granted to the citizen by the state if that citizen can a.) prove their citizenship, and b.) prove their residency. In order to prove one’s citizenship, one either must present a valid birth or naturalisation certificate, or a valid U.S. Passport to the D.M.V. Furthermore; one must prove that one does live at one’s legal voting address. The latter can be arranged, through the presentation of a utility or car bill, or even a bank statement, yet the former is far more complicated to find, particularly if the citizen in question was born in another state.

These laws have been written to “combat voter fraud”, yet there has been hardly any such voter fraud anywhere in the United States in the past twenty years. What these entirely unnecessary laws do accomplish is to restrict voting rights to a select few, to a smaller portion of the population. This is one of many symptoms of our ailing democracy, of our democracy that is sickened and addicted to the power of the almighty dollar. The same politicians that have instituted these voter suppression laws are also the ones who stand to gain the most from having a smaller electorate. Their political power rests squarely on the broad shoulders of their own special interests, cemented through bribery and intimidation alike. This is why sensible gun control legislation has not passed in Congress, despite the string of mass shootings and domestic terror attacks that have plagued this country. This is why the United States does not lead the nations of the world in combatting climate change, in keeping to the standards set in the Paris Climate Agreement. This is why an entire generation of Americans are left in severe debt and often unable to find work upon earning their Bachelor’s degrees. This is why the House Republicans voted to take federal health insurance from 20 million Americans. The voice of the citizen has been overwhelmed by the voice of the special interest.

Our democracy is under threat of becoming a plutocratic oligarchy, a nation governed by a class solely defined by their wealth. Sure, any American can make it to the top, but so long as that American is of European descent, and is willing to do anything it takes to earn more money. The dignity of the citizen is being replaced by the pessimistic wolfish piracy of an unscrupulous few that never outgrew their days of playground bullying. We the citizens should continue to make ourselves heard, we must continue to protest, to march, to call our elected officials, to tweet them, to write to them, to visit their offices and make ourselves heard. But most importantly, come Election Day, we must go out and vote! Without our voting rights were are not citizens but merely voiceless sheep being led about at the whims of a small few.

If our democracies are going to make it through this present time of political upheaval, we the citizens of those democracies must ensure that our voices are not silenced, not muffled by the wealthy and powerful. A person who has nothing to their name, not even a penny, should still have the right to vote; after all that person is a citizen of the country they were born in. Whether we like it or not, we are all subject to the ebbs and flows of the political process. It is up to us to ensure we control that tide, lest it sweep over us and leave us for dead.

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