ON  THE  NATURE  OF

GOOD  CITIZENSHIP

IN  A

DEMOCRATIC  SOCIETY
 
 

BY
 
 
 

WINFIELD H. ROSE, Ph.D.
PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
MURRAY STATE UNIVERSITY
MURRAY, KENTUCKY 42071
 
 

(270) 809-2662
winfield.rose@murraystate.edu
http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/winfield.rose
 
 
 

August 2008
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

ON THE NATURE OF
GOOD CITIZENSHIP
IN A
DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY

by

Winfield H. Rose











        In 1991 Murray State University adopted a statement of educational goals known as the Characteristics of the Murray State University Graduate. Goal # 7 states that a person receiving a degree from this institution should "understand the nature of responsible citizenship and pursue an active role in a democratic society." This is a most laudable goal, one we as a society have long neglected, to our detriment. But what is responsible citizenship and how does one "pursue an active role in a democratic society"? My purpose here is to shed some light on these subjects.

        To begin, the good citizen knows and understands what a democracy is. The term "democracy" is derived from two Greek words, demos and kratia. The first means "people," the second "power." The classical Greeks used the term to describe the government of ancient Athens and to them it meant "rule by the people." Our contemporary definition is the same. Since Athens was a small city-state, they could practice direct democracy but in our large country, however, we have a representative democracy (that is, a republic) in which legislators and executives (and sometimes judges) are chosen in periodic elections to represent and serve the people. The American system of government also is a constitutional democracy, meaning that it is defined and limited by a framework of fundamental, written law which is superior to ordinary statutory law; this is called constitutionalism.

        To move beyond this, we must next inquire into the principles which undergird democracy. What makes it work? The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has suggested the following six "Principles of a Free Society" (www.isi.org/principles.asp):

    Individual Liberty. The Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Jefferson goes on to argue that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." We, therefore, believe that the most fundamental principle of a free society is individual liberty. We also believe in the existence of natural rights and that the only acceptable basis of governmental power is that the people have consented to it.
     
    Personal Responsibility. Each person is morally and legally accountable for his or her acts. This means that each person is responsible for knowing the difference between right and wrong and between what is lawful and unlawful, and then acting accordingly.

    The Rule of Law.
    "Laws, not men, rule a free society. The written Constitution of the United States, with its division of powers [and checks and balances], is the best arrangement yet devised for empowering government while preventing the concentration of power." (ISI)

    Limited Government.
    "The rightful functions of government are to guarantee individual liberty, private property, internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice. [This is similar to the Preamble of the Constitution.] When the state exceeds this proper role, it accumulates [too much] power and becomes a threat to personal liberty." (ISI) Jefferson put it this way: "When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will . . . become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we are separated."

    Free Market Economy.
    "Allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of a free society, as well as the most productive and efficient supplier of human needs." (ISI) The performance of communism compared to capitalism during the past 50 years clearly demonstrates the truth of this statement.

    Moral Standards.
    "The values and ethics of the Judeo-Christian tradition inform and guide a free society. Without such standards, society decays by embracing a relativism that rejects the objective moral order." (ISI) Though some might question this statement, that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a primary pillar of Western civilization should be a self-evident truth (to paraphrase Jefferson).  The late syndicated columnist, news commentator and White House press secretary Tony Snow put it this way: "Our moral inheritance has endured for generations because it is true.  Throw it away and you have nothing - no right and wrong, only an endless struggle between weak and strong."


        If we accept these six principles as foundation stones for a free society, then our next step is to determine the behaviors which implement responsible citizenship and the pursuit of an active role in a democratic society. David Payne, Executive Director of the Kansas Family Research Institute, submits the following:

    Register to vote and VOTE. This is the most basic act in a democracy. If you do not register and vote, you have no right to complain or criticize. You may register at the office of the County Clerk in any county courthouse and other places as well. The requirements are easily satisfied and are reproduced at the end of this document.
     
    Be an informed voter. Go beyond the yard signs, interest group endorsements, and negative television ads to study the candidates and issues in depth. This will require effort and diligence, but  it can be done and it is worth it;  your future and that of your children are at stake.

    Know who represents you in government. 
    The good citizen knows the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of his/her elected officials on the local, state, and national levels of government. This information can be obtained from many sources: libraries, newspapers, schools, via the Internet, and area government offices. Virtually all government agencies and officeholders now have websites and e-mail addresses also.

    Make your views known to your elected officials
    . Share your thoughts with your elected representatives; rest assured others who have a stake in the outcome will do so. Modern computer technology makes this easier than ever before to do. Guidelines may be found at the end of this document. You may not succeed in persuading them to adopt your viewpoint but nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes, and you will have made your voice heard.

    Understand how the governmental process works.
    Again, this information is available from many sources, including the Internet. As with anything else, you have to know the rules of the game in order to play effectively.

    Demonstrate good citizenship in your own community through service to
    others. Many good things need to be done. You can volunteer to work at the local library, nursing home, or hospital, for Meals on Wheels, or as a precinct officer on election day, and so forth. Find something positive to do. "Serving others is the best way to earn the right to be heard." (Payne)

     
    Get involved in politics. Saying that politics is "dirty" or that you can’t make a difference is a "cop-out."  "Find a way to make a difference in your corner of the world. Choose an issue or an organization you believe in and volunteer your time and talents, help with a political campaign, or run for political office. If everyone does a little, it all adds up to a lot." (Payne)

    Good citizenship begins at home.
    "The greatest contribution any parent can make to society is to raise children who are spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy - not perfect - but healthy." (Payne) In other words, lead by example, do it yourself, and teach it to your children.

     Pray for your elected officials. While one of the cornerstones of American politics is the separation of church and state, and rightfully so, that does not require the separation of religious faith and politics, and persons of religious faith definitely should pray for our country and its leaders.

     
    In addition to the above, I would add the following:

    The good citizen always has easy access to a copy of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. This means having them in his home or office.  But easy access is not enough.  These documents should be read, studied, learned, understood, and appreciated.  The same can be said for The Federalist Papers by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay and Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.

    The good citizen complies with the law voluntarily. While bad laws are not an impossibility, it should be obvious that law is essential for the functioning and survival of society. Either we obey the law voluntarily or we have anarchy on the one hand or a police state on the other. (The solution to crime is not more police officers but greater compliance with the law.) The good citizen, for example, does not cheat on his taxes or try to avoid jury duty.

    The good citizen knows and values his country’s past, its history, its traditions, its heroes, its monuments, and its sacred places.  The good citizen knows that many people, going all the way back to the founding of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown in 1607, have made many sacrifices to found, build, preserve, and protect our country, and he teaches these things to his children.

  The good citizen also knows that his/her country has made some mistakes (as has every individual) along the way.  The good citizen does not deny these mistakes but neither does he permit them to define his society to the exclusion of its virtues and accomplishments. He or she does, however, try not to repeat them.

The good citizen is conscious of the environment. The good citizen does not waste natural resources. The good citizen recycles empty cans and cartons as much as possible and never places trash anywhere except in appropriate receptacles. The good citizen also keeps his automobile in good running order so that it pollutes the atmosphere as little as possible.

The good citizen recognizes that other people can be just as sincere in their views as he is in his. He, therefore, respects them and their views. He is tolerant and polite at all times and knows how to disagree without being disagreeable.

The good citizen bases his judgments on relevant rather than irrelevant factors. He evaluates issues only on their merits and people only on the basis of their character anddeeds.

Whether he is researching, writing, testifying, teaching, debating, or simply speaking, the good citizen is interested in "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," and nothing else, at all times.   The good citizen also knows that this truth will not necessarily be self-evident: you likely will have to search it out and it may not be an easy task but it will be worth the effort.  You must have your facts straight to have credibility and to make correct decisions.

In voting, the good citizen recognizes that more is at stake than his personal preferences and well being. A broader and more fundamental issue is involved, and that issue is what is in the long-term best interests of our country, our state, and our community. We have a society which we enjoy and, hopefully, treasure but it must be passed on to future generations.   If we must choose between our own personal, short-term benefit and the long-term interest of the future, we should choose the future. That is what the veterans of our armed forces have done countless times, and we should do no less.

The good citizen always is willing to advocate and defend the truth and what is right.  Truth and right do not necessarily always stand on their own two feet, so to speak.  They need good people to speak and act in their defense. Theodore Roosevelt said, "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords."

The good citizen always tries to leave his community, and therefore his state,his nation, and the world a better place for his having been here. When you die, will anyone be able to say anything good about you and your life? The good citizen can answer that question with an unequivocal "yes."

. . . the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.  -  Aristotle  
Making Your Views Known: Letters

To the Chief Executive:

The Honorable (name)
President of the United States / Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky
The White House / The Governor’s Mansion
Washington, DC 20500 / Frankfort, KY 40601

Dear President / Governor (name):
 

To a member of the House of Representatives:

The Honorable (name)
United States House of Representatives / Kentucky House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515 / Frankfort, KY 40601

Dear Representative (name):

To a member of the Senate:

The Honorable (name)
United States Senate / Kentucky State Senate
Washington, DC 20510 / Frankfort, KY  40601

Dear Senator (name):
 
 



Suggestions:


(1)  You desire credibility,  so  do  not begin with  the words  "As a citizen and taxpayer,   I demand . . . " or say anything else that would result in your letter not being taken seriously.  Also, be sure you have your facts straight.

(2)  Your purpose for writing should be stated in the first paragraph of your letter. If your letter is about a specific piece of legislation, identify it as House Bill # ____ or Senate Bill #____.

(3)  Be neat, courteous, respectful, to the point, and include key information, using examples to support your position. Use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

(4)  Address only one issue in each letter and, if possible, limit its length to one page.

(5)  Do not demand the adoption of your position but simply request that it be given serious consideration, and then express thanks.

(6)  Don’t make a nuisance of yourself. People who write three or four letters, week after week, are not taken seriously.

(7)  The next time the Governor, Representative, or Senator is in your area, reinforce your letter with a personal contact. They come to town for speaking engagements, forums, receptions, holiday celebrations, and so forth, and these visits will be announced in newspapers and on the radio beforehand.   Make the effort to meet them and share your views with them at that time as well. They will be glad to see you.

KENTUCKY VOTING REQUIREMENTS

(1)  Be a U.S. citizen.

(2)  Be a Kentucky resident
(3)  Be at least 18 years of age on or before the general election.
(4)  Be a resident of the county for at least twenty-eight days prior to the election date.
(5)  Not be a convicted felon or if you have been convicted of a felony your civil rights have been restored by executive pardon.
(6)  Not have been judged "mentally incompetent" in a court of law.
(7)  Not claim the right to vote anywhere outside Kentucky.
 
 


MORE  INFORMATION
 

White House main switchboard:  (202) 456-1414
Comment line:  (202) 456-1111
FAX:  (202) 456-2461
Official internet website:  www.whitehouse.gov
(E-mail via internet website)

United States Congress main switchboard:  (202) 224-3121
Official internet websites:
House of Representatives:  www.house.gov
Senate:  www.senate.gov

Other sources:

The Internet Guide to the United States Congress:
www.capweb.net/classic/index.morph

THOMAS Legislative Information on the Internet:
http://thomas.loc.gov/

The National Political Index
www.politicalindex.com/

Findlaw
 

If you do not know the names of your Senators and Representative, you may contact Project Vote Smart, 129 NW 4th Street, Corvallis, OR 97330, (541) 754-2746.  Their Voter's Research Hotline toll-free number is 1-800-622-SMART for questions or assistance.  You may also access their internet website at www.vote-smart.org/ and get the names of your Senators and Representative by entering your zip code.  This source also will enable you to acquire information pertaining to their voting record, performance evaluations by various interest groups, issue positions, and campaign finances, as well as a short biography.

You may also contact

 Townhall Congressional Resource Center
http://congress.nw.dc.us/townhall/

The Center for Public Integrity
1634 Eye Street NW, Suite 902
Washington, DC  20006
(202) 783-3900
E-mail:  contact@publicintegrity.org
Internet website:  www.publicintegrity.org

If you live in Kentucky's first Congressional district:

Hon. Ed Whitfield
U. S. House of Representatives
236 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC  20515
Washington telephone:  (202) 225-3115
Washington FAX:  (202) 225-3547
Paducah telephone: (270) 442-6901
Paducah FAX:  (270) 442-6805
E-mail:  ed.whitfield@mail.house.gov
Internet website:  www.house.gov/whitfield/

Hon. Jim Bunning
United States Senate
380 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC  20510-0605
Washington telephone:  (202) 224-4343
Washington FAX:  (202) 224-0046
E-mail:  senator@bunning.senate.gov
Internet website:  www.senate.gov/~bunning/

Hon. Mitch McConnell
United States Senate
120 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC  20510
Washington telephone:  (202) 224-2541
Washington FAX:  (202) 224-2499
Paducah telephone:  (270) 442-4554
Paducah FAX:  (270) 443-3102
E-mail:  senator@mcconnell.senate.gov
Internet website:  www.senate.gov/~mcconnell/

About Kentucky state government:

Kentucky state government main internet website:
www.state.ky.us/govtinfo.htm

Governor Paul Patton's internet website:
www.state.ky.us/agencies/gov/govmenu6.htm

Kentucky Legislature Homepage:
http://www.lrc.state.ky.us/home.htm

Kentucky State Board of Elections

We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs,
not as harmless, but a useless character.
Thucydides

For further information, see internet web links on my personal homepage and on the syllabus for my course POL 140, American National Government.
 

The views expressed here are the author's.  They do not presume to speak for anyone else, either individual or corporate.