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Thursday, April 19, 2012


As Michael Walzer has observed, modern liberal democracy cannot comprehend the classical institution of the metic, the hereditary status above slave but below citizen.  It is not only progressivism that supports legal membership for those who are members in fact.  It is an understanding that pervades the political spectrum.  Status equality among community members is a trumping proposition;  it can be contested in its application but the premise stands undisputed.

Peter Spiro
Beyond Citizenship

Is this true?  Are we as members of democratic nation-states really committed to the equality of all community members both as a basic principle and in the creation of laws?  Some hard cases would imply that we don't.  There are situations where citizens seem perfectly happy to deny a category of their fellow citizens all the rights that theoretically come with membership in a political community.  Conversely, citizens of some countries accept the granting of some citizenship rights to non-citizens as a matter of simple justice.  Long-term residents of most moderns states may enjoy almost all the rights of citizenship, even the right to vote and the right of residence.

Perhaps the problem here is thinking of citizenship as an all or nothing category.  Is it really like that and can we honestly say that we think that either you are a citizen or you are not and there are no intermediate categories?  The Peter Spiro quotation above is one that has bothered me since I read it a few months ago.  I think the premise is disputed not only in the making of laws but also among citizens themselves.  We do distinguish different levels of citizenship and we are more and more willing to grant a kind of status to non-citizens that blurs the line between citizens and non-citizen in a way that makes it more and more unclear what those two supposedly completely different categories mean.  A recent poll showed that the French are quite willing to give the vote long-term residents but the EU supported the Greek governments right to deny the franchise of its citizens living in other EU states.  A friend from the U.S. who wholeheartedly supports the right of due process for permanent residents inside the U.S., nonetheless supported the killing of an American citizen abroad without it. 

We do not always accept the premise of status equality for the members of a political community.  We do, in both word and deed, make distinctions between different categories of citizens and we offer or take away rights on that basis of those distinctions.  And it is entirely conceivable in some situations that non-citizens can end up with more effective rights then some categories of citizens. 

Elizabeth Cohen, in her book, Semi-citizenship in Democratic Politics, argues that, yes, there are political categories of citizens because citizen and non-citizen are not binary concepts.  Between the two are intermediate categories that we don't even question:  felons in the U.S. lose some of their civil rights, military personnel and some Americans abroad lose due process rights, some EU citizens abroad don't have the right to vote and so on.    To be clear, her argument is not about whether or not this is fair or right.  What she's saying is that we are looking at a continuum and that "full citizenship" is a myth.  "It exists in gradations and has 'degrees of membership' and no clear boundaries." Pretending that this isn't true means that we don't have a framework for thinking rationally and honestly about it.

She attempts to rectify this by proposing a framework of her own based on rights and she uses Charles Tilly's definition of what rights are:
Rights exist when one party can effectively insist that another deliver good, services or protections, and third parties will act to reinforce (or at least not hinder) their delivery.  Such entitlements become citizenship rights when the object of the claims is a state or its agent, and the successful claimant qualifies by simple membership in a broad category of persons subject to the state's jurisdiction.
Based on that definition Cohen divides rights into two groups:  some are "autonomous" and required by every person to access things he or she needs under any and all circumstances - like healthcare, for example, or the right to reside somewhere and have freedom of movement.  And then there are "relative" rights that depend on a specific political context like the right to vote.  From there she creates a quadrant that matches four combinations (from strong to weak) of these rights.  She then places different groups into one of the quadrants and orders them from "First-order semi-citizens" (strong autonomous and relative rights) to "Fourth-order semi-citizens" (weak autonomous and weak relative rights).

Some examples?  Permanent residents, subjects in U.S. territories and refugees are "First-order semi-citizens" with strong autonomous and relative rights.  "Second-order semi-citizens" include children, felons and members of the U.S. military who all have strong autonomous rights and weak relative ones.

I'm sure at this point someone has read and been offended by the idea that U.S. military personnel enjoy something less then full citizenship status (not to mention putting them in a category that includes felons).  But the reality is that, yes, when they join the military they enjoy fewer rights then other U.S. citizens - a fact that probably a lot of Americans are unaware of.  The utility of Cohen's framework is that we can use it to see things that we might otherwise miss.  At that point we can address what could be reasonably argued is an unjust situation (since when does a member of the U.S. military lose a right held by citizens and permanent residents alike?) or make another argument that the context makes it necessary for one reason or another.  I think she makes a very valid point:  all U.S. citizens are not equal and do not enjoy the same "bundle" of rights.  

I, of course, am reading Cohen's work through another lens.  It has occurred to me over the past year or so that Americans abroad effectively have something that is less than full U.S. citizenship and that homeland Americans think this is right and just.  A lot depends on the situation but those of us who live abroad are aware that some U.S. citizens overseas have very weak relative rights.  Some cannot vote, for example, or cannot pass U.S. citizenship on to their children.  In other cases, some have lost the right to due process and even the right to life since they can be hunted down and killed by government order.  It would be interesting to use Cohen's framework to examine the case of Americans abroad versus homeland citizens and permanent residents.  In fact, it might be very illuminating for all diasporas to do this exercise.  You might disagree with me but I contend that it never hurts to make the implicit explicit. 

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