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America first and the sovereign citizens

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Leaders chase patriotic citizens, renouncing to rule phenomena. The coronavirus condemns the sovereigns to rethink the model

Popular sovereignty: a duty of liberal citizenship. French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a news conference to unveil his policy response to the yellow vests protest, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a news conference to unveil his policy response to the yellow vests protest, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

During her first address to the Conservative Party as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in October 2016, Theresa May made it clear that: ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word “citizenship” means.’ Moreover, this was not an off-the-cuff remark. As she explained at the top of the speech, May was setting out her governing philosophy. And central to that philosophy is what she called ‘the spirit of citizenship, which she defined in terms of ‘the bonds and obligations that make … society work,’ ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you,’ and ‘recognising the social contract’ in a way that puts ‘local’ people ahead of people from ‘overseas’.

May’s understanding of citizenship resonates closely with Donald Trump’s political views. Trump organized his January 2017 inaugural address around a very specific interpretation of putting ‘America first’. ‘At the center of this movement,’ he argued, ‘is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.’ In this worldview, the citizens exist collectively as ‘the people’. ‘What matters is not which party controls our government,’ Trump explained, ‘but whether our government is controlled by the people.’ Hence, Trump insisted, his election would ‘be remembered as the day the people became rulers of [the United States] again.’

This notion of citizenship as a collection of ‘bonds and obligations’ that constitute ‘the people’ as a singular political entity remains potent both in Great Britain and in the United States. Boris Johnson explained Britain’s exit from the European Union on 31 January 2020 saying: ‘We have obeyed the people. We have taken back the tools of self-government.’ Trump went even further in his February 2020 State of the Union address: ‘The people are the heart of our country, their dreams are the soul of our country, and their love is what powers and sustains our country. We must always remember that our job is to put America first.’

There is something beguiling about this image of citizens making up a people that is somehow in charge of its own destiny, particularly when these ideas are stripped away from the harsher, less forgiving rhetoric that politicians like May, Trump and Johnson have tended to use. The contrast between Trump’s inaugural and his most recent State of the Union is a good illustration. Moreover, even a politician like French President Emmanuel Macron – who comes across as more cosmopolitan than nation-first – recognizes the importance of this collective point of view. In a November 2019 interview with The Economist, Macron suggested that Europeans may have underestimated the importance of popular sovereignty in their efforts to promote universal values in other parts of the globe. Such efforts will only succeed when they succeed in ‘convincing other peoples’ because, Macron explained, you cannot get around popular sovereignty, which is something that should be respected everywhere.

Macron’s use of the term ‘sovereignty’, however, reveals the danger associated with any equation of the citizens as a group and the people as a monolithic collective. In the liberal tradition, popular sovereignty comes from the individual who lends consent to government. It does not come from ‘the people’. Moreover, the simple existence of universal values implies that there are limits to this consent. In very basic terms, this means that all citizens do not have to dream the same dream or express the same totalizing love of their country and its government. There should be space for criticism and even conflict. Hence, when Trump says in his inaugural that: ‘we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny’ he goes beyond the boundaries of traditional liberalism.

By the same token, the state has to be tolerant of certain differences of opinion – even when these result in unequal outcomes. Theresa May’s speech has a chilling refrain in the passages about tax: ‘If you’re a tax-dodger,’ May insisted, ‘we’re coming after you. If you’re an accountant, a financial adviser or a middleman who helps people to avoid what they owe to society, we’re coming after you too.’ She frames this as an effort to ensure ‘everyone plays by the same rules.’ The problem with this argument is that most ‘tax dodging’ takes place because the rules are badly written and not because either corporations or their advisors have broken the rules. The solution is to tighten the rules; going after the offender is good politics, perhaps, but risks undermining rather than strengthening the rule of law.

So long as the people remain sovereign as individuals, ‘the people’ as a collective can only act within the limits of popular consent. That is the inconvenient truth that politicians obscure when they attack cosmopolitanism in order to promote a political philosophy that puts their nation first. The more such politicians insist on the existence of a single, coherent ‘people’, the more they diminish the individual rights that lie at the core of liberal political thought.

By contrast, Macron’s argument about the unavoidable importance of popular sovereignty to any effort to promote European values abroad pushes in the opposite direction. His point is that it makes no sense to try and promote European values unless people elsewhere can be convinced that such values are universal (and not just European). Any effort to impose European values will only result in contradiction, because the most important of those values is consent.

The ‘spirit of citizenship’ in liberal thought rests on ‘rights and obligations’ and not on the ‘bonds and obligations’ that May describes and that Trump makes all-encompassing. The obligations are the bonds that bind community together in liberal thought, and that citizens embrace by consent. The most important of these obligations is to protect the fundamental rights of the individual. This does not prevent citizens from forming other bonds of kinship, friendship, or imagined community. Such bonds are important, but they go beyond the requirements for citizenship.

The ‘citizens of the world’ that May disparages for their cosmopolitan worldview are well-aware of this priority and seek to extend that protection of individual rights as far as possible. Moreover, that acknowledgement of limitations – as far as possible – is important. Cosmopolitans like Macron are equally aware that the world is not one community, that politics is local, and that liberal democracies will have to act strategically and patiently if they hope to nurture the development of liberal democracy abroad. In that sense, being a ‘citizen of the world’ is one of the obligations of liberal citizenship, full stop.

By contrast, politicians who focus on ‘bonds and obligations’ reject liberalism. In its place, they offer a worldview that places group rights over the rights of the individual and that replaces citizenship as an act of consent with something that looks more like ‘membership’. Donald Trump framed this best when he spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2018: ‘America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.’ In this ‘doctrine of patriotism’ the consent comes not from the individual, but from whomever has the power to determine who is in and who is out.

The worry with any such notion of citizenship as espoused by May, Trump, and Johnson, is that it is too easy to imagine how it can be taken away. The result is ‘citizens of nowhere’ of a different sort. Unfortunately, that is a result many Europeans have, tragically, already seen.

@Erik_Jones_SAIS

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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