What is the meaning of civic membership? Most of us have some experience with membership. We are members of families, associations, teams, religious communities, and so on. We became members of some of these groups by birth or tradition, and some by choice. In either case, active membership entails at least three things: having a connection with the story or narrative that gives members an identity, consenting to the member’s key values, and participating in the activities of the members. These characteristics of membership, of course, do not eliminate disagreement and controversy. Just the opposite; they provide a shared platform for dealing with disagreement. So what is the civic story?
I assume there are many civic stories, or at least more than one. The narrative that defines the civic for me begins in the United States with the struggle for the abolition of slavery, which achieved some success when previously enslaved Africans gained the right to vote after the Civic War. In contrast to the early years of our Republic, when only property owners could vote, now property-less people were also recognized as citizens. It is true that by 1850, white men without property could vote, but when you consider that African Americans represented around 20% of the US population (40 % of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia), their inclusion in the civic was historic. The establishment of various Jim Crow laws soon after the war largely negated this victory, but these laws did not stop the emergence of the civic.
The civic story continued with many different episodes, including women obtaining the right to vote in the 1920’s, workers gaining the right to organize in the 30’s, the civil rights in the 60’s, the feminist movement in the 70’s and the LGBT struggle for civil rights today. Even though I am a white heterosexual male, this narrative of fighting for inclusion—for full citizenship—provides a context for understanding my civic membership.
This civic narrative also tells us something about the kinds of activities that members should pursue. This struggle for inclusion—really for the integrity of the very meaning of citizenship—is not only a good story, but also an obligation.
Civic membership has its obligations. The first, and most obvious, is to recognize the equal moral worth of every member. Secondly, since we are members of the same global community, live at the same time, belong to the same generations, are dependent on the same planet, our social structures should be balanced; they should be fair. For the 1% to have so much more than the 99% violates basic civic norms, as does wasting our economic surplus on political campaigns instead of using it to improve our life together and to protect our planet. We may disagree about how to make these changes, which is OK, if we could agree on the meaning of civic membership.