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Citizenship abroad: a quest for democratic citizenship in Russia

We have noted before Leon Aron’s look into Russian civic society based on his trip to the country last July. On the trip, Aron interviewed leaders of different grassroots organizations and democratic movements in an effort to better understand civic culture and citizenship in Russia.


Citizenship Abroad: Hungary

If you’re anything like us, you may have been too busy following the happenings in Iowa and New Hampshire to really have time to look at citizenship happenings abroad. If so, the recent demonstrations in Budapest, Hungary, would be one thing to catch up on.


Citizenship abroad…and the economic crisis?

We hope you’re paying attention to citizenship lessons and goings-on abroad. Last time, we highlighted citizenship in the Arab world and Russia; this time, we turn toward Europe. The tensions produced there between the rule of law, democratic ideals, and the need to seriously address the economic situation have raised some important questions.

Writing for the Washington Times, former U.S. ambassador John Bolton introduces the point well:

The crisis of the euro, the common currency of 17 European Union members, continues unabated. Because of massive, sustained budget deficits by several eurozone countries, some could default on their sovereign debt obligations, or the euro itself might disintegrate, profoundly affecting the EU’s political and economic future.

Very little media attention, however, is focused on a very different, but even more important, EU problem, namely its “democratic deficit.”

Ross Douthat, writing a week earlier for the New York Times, argues:

[F]or the inhabitants of Italy and Greece, who have just watched democratically elected governments toppled by pressure from financiers, European Union bureaucrats and foreign heads of state, [this anti-democratic scenario] evokes the cold reality of 21st-century politics. Democracy may be nice in theory, but in a time of crisis it’s the technocrats who really get to call the shots. National sovereignty is a pretty concept, but the survival of the European common currency comes first. […]

From the American perspective, a more centralized and undemocratic Europe is clearly preferable to the risk of another recession. For the staggering world economy, it would be disastrous if a burst of nationalism somehow broke Europe’s common currency.

But that’s easy for us to say: it isn’t our self-government that’s at stake.

And so it isn’t. According to AEI’s Michael Greve in an article on Alexander Hamilton appearing in National Review, though, the problems run even a bit more practical as well: a government over governments (such as the EU, in contradistinction to American style federalism) is, to quote Hamilton, “subversive of the order and ends of civil polity.” As Greve clarifies, “A now-we-mean it confederacy with teeth was not Hamilton’s project. It was then, as it is now in Europe, the project of braindead state elites.  Far from embracing it, Hamilton fought it with all his resolve and skill. What he fought for instead was a Constitution beyond Europe’s reach and imagination–an actual fiscal union, with a federal government that directly taxes and regulates citizens but leaves state governments to their own fate. That is what we inherited. American federalism has its problems, but the prospect of installing trusted federal bureaucrats or governments of unity in Sacramento or Springfield is not among them.”


Learning citizenship lessons from abroad

[This blog post was written by Timothy Maller, the Program’s fall intern. Interested in interning for the Program on American Citizenship? Click here.]

“An educated citizenry is vital to the survival of democracy”—Thomas Jefferson

Democracy does not perpetuate itself automatically. It requires citizens who are educated in its principles and understand its importance.

A recent paper released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Education for Citizenship in the Arab World: Key to the Future,” highlights the importance of civic education to the future of democratic reforms in the Arab world. Another study, released by AEI’s Russian Studies Department, “Following One’s Conscience: Civic Organization and Russia’s Future, Part 1,” argues that civic participation may be the only way for Russia to reverse its current slide back into authoritarianism. These foreign examples should serve as a reminder to Americans of the importance of civic education in our own republic.

As the writers of “Education for Citizenship in the Arab World”—Muhammed Faour and Marwan Muasher—acknowledge, the Arab Spring was an inspiring moment to people around the world, and many people equated the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt with the advent of democracy in these countries. As time has progressed, however, it has become starkly apparent that the transition to democracy is far from certain, and will require a lot of hard work if it is to be successful.

Faour and Muasher believe that education is essential to democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring. What’s fascinating is how similar the arguments made in favor of civic education in these fledgling democracies are to the ones being made in America today. Take this excerpt, for instance:

The current education reform efforts in the region heavily focus on such “technical” aspects as building more schools, introducing computers to schools, improving test scores in mathematics and sciences, and bridging the gender gap in education. While necessary and important, the reform’s current emphasis misses a basic human component: Students need to learn at a very early age what it means to be citizens who learn how to think, seek and produce knowledge, question, and innovate rather than be subjects of the state who are taught what to think and how to behave. These attributes are essential if the region is to move […] toward the kind of system that empowers its citizens with the requisite skills to build self-generating, prosperous economies and achieve a quality of life that can come through respect for diversity, critical thinking, creativity, and exercising one’s duties and rights as an active citizen.

AEI’s Program on American Citizenship has made similar arguments: that increased instructional time in reading and math, at the expense of civics and government, goes against the very purpose of public schools—to develop responsible and informed citizens.

By contrast, the Russia of today paints a different picture—that of a country whose democratic reforms have slowly eroded. In “Following One’s Conscience,” Leon Aron tells the story of his encounters with six grassroots organizations that are combating various political and social issues through civic activism. Though their respective issues differ, each group and its members have faced harassment from the state. Indeed, according to Aron, “nearly all of them have been arrested and held in overcrowded cells,” and “most of our subjects have been roughed up by the police.” Despite this hardship, the activists have remained convinced of the importance of their goals and are, as Aron puts it, “determined to persist in the crusade for a mature, organized, enlightened, strong, and self-aware civil society.” Indeed, Aron believes that they are Russia’s best hope for a democratic future, stating that “What the activists perceive as the moral imperative of their struggle ensures that their grass-roots efforts to enlarge the sphere of self-government will endure and makes them Russia’s best hope for a path away from Putinism.”

These two papers serve as stirring reminders of the importance of civic education and civic activism. Unlike the participants of the Arab Spring or the Russian activists profiled, though, Americans today often do take the longevity of our democratic tradition for granted. We as a people would do well to remember the wisdom of Jefferson and learn from these examples.


Citizenship roundup

Here’s an end-of-the-week news roundup for things happening in the citizenship world you may have missed:

Citizenship and Sovereignty in Europe

Continuing the discussion of citizenship lessons from abroad–and issues of state sovereignty and the European economic crisis–Kori Schake wonders if individuals states (and their citizens) still have the capacity to chart their own destines.


A quest for democratic citizenship

We covered the first part of Leon Aron’s look into Russian civic society in November; the follow-up report, “Following One’s Conscience, part 2: A Quest for Democratic Citizenship” is now available at AEI.


When Our Country Came of Age: An Argument for Constitution Day

In the history of man there’s never been a legal order that has provided the same level of stability, prosperity and popular legitimacy as the US Constitution.

For ten-plus years, the republic was governed by the Articles of Confederation; a document ineffective in delivering those very rights, international and domestic, that the citizens of the 13 states had gone to war with the British crown to secure. While never as exciting as the ends of government expressed in the Declaration, the Constitution has nevertheless been the stolid means for securing those ends for more than two centuries. For as problematic as we might find politics and government today, in the history of man there’s never been a legal order that has provided the same level of stability, prosperity and popular legitimacy as the US Constitution.


Serving After Serving: Veterans in State Public Office

Are veterans in public office a vanishing breed? The composition of the state legislatures doesn’t tell such a story. Actually, it tells an entirely new story, since no one up to this point appears ever to have compiled the data on the military service backgrounds of state-level legislators.

Combing through publicly available sources regarding every member of every state legislature, the AEI Program on American Citizenship has gathered such information for the first time, to form a more comprehensive picture of the veteran composition of public office holders in 2016.


The Problem with Presidents and Heroes

The escalation of this Frank Underwoodization of government in general and the presidency in particular seems inevitable. But a study of our great statesmen-presidents of old shows with what tools they confronted the immense difficulties of their day and what was the measure of their success. That they were successful is born out by the endurance of the American project, one feature of which is the once every four-year ritual of electing a president. If that does not inspire confidence about the health of our democratic society, the continued observance of Washington’s Birthday at least ought to encourage us that it is not yet so fragile as the snow crusts of February.


Rethinking Civil-Military Relations

As our military engagements abroad wind down, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey suggests that the postwar era will fundamentally change the dynamic between the all-volunteer military force and civilians. Dempsey’s recent op-ed, “Time to rethink civil-military relations” argues that this is a critical time to redefine the relationship between civilians and the military.


Military Seen as Contributing Most to Society

Despite contentious conflicts abroad, Americans continue to hold the military in the highest regard. A new poll by Pew asked Americans which professions contribute to society’s well-being, and the results may surprise you.


US Military Still Most Respected Institution

Despite years of contentious engagements abroad, the US military is far and away the most trusted US institution, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Sitting among a list of ten US institutions, including the federal government, large corporations, and the IRS, 67% of those polled answered that they had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in the military.


The memeification of civic engagement

Writing at the Huffington Post, Rachel Tardiff worries that the decline in civic education in public schools has had very real effects on how citizens engage (or don’t engage) their government and advocate for change. Using the recent debate on social networking sites over gay marriage as an example, Tardiff notes that her Facebook feed became “a stream of red, with a huge swath of [her] friends changing their profile pictures” to the red equal sign to show their support for same sex marriage. Unfortunately, she writes, not many of her friends knew what else they could do to show support for their cause: “We’ve grown up in the political reality . . . where civic education courses are a luxury and a sense of civic duty is quaint. When all you feel you can do to further your views is to share a photo on Facebook . . . then it’s a short but hard fall from engagement to impotence.”


Civics in the nation’s capital?

According to the Washington Post, a new proposal by the Washington DC State Board of Education would, among other things, eliminate the current requirement that students take a course in American government in order to graduate from high school. Instead, students would be required to take courses in world history (1 unit), United States history (1 unit), and Washington, DC history (0.5) units, and then would have the choice to fill their remaining 1.5 units of social studies with classes such as economics, financial literacy, global studies, or government/civics.


AEI Report: Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education

Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education
By Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly
(January 16, 2013)

On a sunny Tuesday in June, the streets of Harlem, New York City, are filled with the usual midday crowd hustling in and out of subway stations and eating hurried lunches. One thing they are most decidedly not doing is voting. And this is a disappointment for a small army of schoolchildren dressed in bright yellow shirts.

The students in yellow attend one of the charter schools in the Democracy Prep Public Schools network and, with the help of their teachers and several parent volunteers, are waging a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign. The occasion is the Democratic congressional primary for New York’s 15th Congressional District, which encompasses upper Manhattan (including Columbia University, Washington Heights, and Harlem) and surrounding locales. Congressional primaries are typically low-turnout affairs in which incumbents have a massive advantage.

Download Full Report as PDF


Frederick Douglass on the importance of voting

Today, as voters across the country stand in long lines to perform their civic duty and cast their votes, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of why voting should be so important to Americans. In 1865, Frederick Douglass addressed the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston and provided a robust defense of black Americans’ desire to vote. His words are worth reading again today.


Event reminder: The Muslim-American Muddle

In The Weekly Standard, Program director Gary Schmitt questions whether the prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a pharmacy college graduate, on various terrorism-related charges squares with our commitment to free speech:

On the face of it, the government’s case against the Massachusetts Muslim for lying to government investigators and conspiring to kill American soldiers abroad was sufficiently strong to ensure a conviction. The more problematic element of the case, however—and what makes it of interest from the point of view of constitutional law—was whether his advocacy activities constituted punishable “material support” to a terrorist organization (weapons, money, training, or expert assistance, for example) or whether they were speech protected by the First Amendment.

How can America respond to the threat of domestic Islamist terrorism while protecting civil liberties? 


Mid-week roundup

Mid-week roundup:

  • More on the Eisenhower Memorial: The Washington Post has a favorable review of the proposed memorial, hailing architect Frank Gehry for his innovation, playfulness (“Gehry has produced a design that inverts several of the sacred hierarchies of the classic memorial, emphasizing ideas of domesticity and interiority rather than masculine power and external display…”), and democratic style (the focus on Eisenhower’s childhood shows that while “Eisenhower was a great man, […] there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped…”). If you’re looking for a view on the memorial different than the ones we’ve presented thus far, this review is worth reading.
  • Continuing our citizenship lessons from abroad, Program Director Gary Schmitt has a post remembering Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic who died on Sunday. As Schmitt recounts, “The fact that Europe today is virtually ‘whole and free’ is in no small way due to the life’s work of one man, Vaclav Havel.”
  • Harvard’s Institute of Politics has some new polling data on Millenials’ views of politics and public service.
  • And finally, the Washington Post reports that military voting has increased since 2006, and found that 77 percent of troops registered to vote in the 2010 election–compared with 65 percent of Americans at large who registered. Despite these gains, though, more than 112,000 military voters never received the absentee ballots they requested for the 2010 voting cycle.

This week in civic education

By Timothy Maller

A roundup of recent happenings in civic education:

  • Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon, in a speech at the fifth annual Oregon Civics Conference, and Michelle M. Herczog, in a CNN blog post, both emphasized the importance of civics and social studies education in preparing young Americans to face the challenges of the future and maintain the vitality of our republic.
  • An article in Education Week highlights a debate between social studies advocates and proponents of the Common Core content standards in math and language arts.  Supporters of the Common Core believe that its interdisciplinary approach will benefit math and language arts instruction as well as the social studies, while critics claim that it only increases the emphasis on these subjects at the expense of the social studies curriculum.  Dana Goldstein and the Baltimore Sun also weigh in on the subject, both showing a cautious optimism regarding the Common Core and its relation to social studies instruction.
  • Civics?  There’s an app for that.  Following the trend of creating more interactive, web-based instruction for millennial learners, Pearson displayed their collection of social studies educational apps at the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference this past week.  Likewise, McGraw-Hill used the conference to demonstrate their Education’s Networks, “a groundbreaking multimedia social studies learning system that brings history to life for middle and high school students.”
  • A fascinating article by Taiwan’s China Post highlights a discrepancy between the aims of the country’s civic education program and the values of its digital-age students.  As we’ve stated before, worry about the decline in civic education is hardly exclusive to the United States, and Americans can learn from foreign examples such as these.

Timothy Maller is an intern with the AEI Program on American Citizenship.