Modern Citizenship

Rogers Smith. Handbook of Citizenship Studies. Editor: Engin F Isin & Bryan S Turner. Sage Publication. 2002.

What does citizenship mean today? How does this meaning or set of meanings differ from what it has meant in the past and what it may mean in the future? To the question of the distinctive modern meaning of citizenship, we scholars can give some reasonably concrete and widely accepted answers. The question as to what modern citizenship is becoming is one that many people are also answering, but they are doing so in ways that go well beyond what scholars can hope to determine, either in theory or practice. That is essentially as it should be, I believe; but I shall nonetheless seek to say something about where modern citizenship may be going.

Four Meanings of Citizenship

To grasp what citizenship has come to mean in the contemporary world, it may be helpful to begin by identifying some different definitions of the term.

The first and perhaps the most familiar meaning of citizenship is in fact the seminal one. In both ancient and modern republics and democracies, a citizen has been a person with political rights to participate in processes of popular self-governance. These include rights to vote; to hold elective and appointive governmental offices; to serve on various sorts of juries; and generally to participate in political debates as equal community members.

Secondly, especially in the modern world, we also commonly speak of ‘citizenship’ as a more purely legal status. ‘Citizens’ are people who are legally recognized as members of a particular, officially sovereign political community. They therefore possess some basic rights to be protected by that community’s government, whether or not those rights include rights of political participation. In this meaning, possessing ‘citizenship’ is understood to be effectively equivalent to possessing ‘nationality’ under a particular modern state, even if there remains some sense that ‘citizens’ are presumptively more entitled to full political rights than mere ‘nationals.’

In the last century or so, moreover, it has become increasingly customary to use ‘citizen’ in a third way, as referring to those who belong to almost any human association, whether a political community or some other group. I can be said to be a citizen of my neighborhood, my fitness club, and my university as well as my broader political community. To be sure, this type of usage is far from strictly modern. St Augustine’s fifth-century masterpiece, City of God, was premised on the idea that the saved are ‘citizens of the heavenly City,’ rather than simply citizens of earthly cities or indeed of ‘the world community’ (Augustine, [413-427] 1958: 326). Today this sort of deployment of the term ‘citizenship’ is still often understood to be at least partly metaphorical, as it was in Augustine’s formulation. Yet now the use of ‘citizenship’ to refer to membership in virtually any association is so ubiquitous that many treat such nonpolitical ‘citizenship’ as an alternative but equally valid meaning of the word.

Fourthly, as a result of, especially, both the first and third meanings, today we often use ‘citizenship’ to signify not just membership in some group but certain standards of proper conduct. Some people—those who contribute to the well-being of their political community, church, lunch club, or other human association, and do so frequently, valuably, at some cost to themselves—are understood to be the ‘true’ citizens of those bodies. Others who free-ride on their efforts are mere members who do not seem to understand, embrace, or embody what citizenship really means. When communities, public or private, give ‘citizenship’ awards to some of their members, it is this usage they invoke. It obviously implies that only ‘good’ citizens are genuinely citizens in the full meaning of the term. This meaning represents a merger of the republican conception of participatory citizenship with the now common practice of using citizenship to refer to membership in any of an almost infinite variety of human groups.

Note that the latter three of these meanings have emerged especially over the last several centuries, with the last two probably most prevalent in the last 100 years. What happened in the course of modern history to generate this proliferation of usages? The answers, I believe, reveal much about what citizenship has become and where it may be going.

The Path to Modern Citizenship

Perhaps necessarily, the oldest meaning of citizenship, participation in political self-governance, has survived in the modern world only in greatly modified form. The word ‘citizen’ derives from the Latin civis or civitas, meaning a member of an ancient city-state, preeminently the Roman republic; but civitas was a Latin rendering of the Greek term polites, a member of a Greek polis. Innumerable scholars have told how a renowned resident of the Athenian polis, Aristotle, defined a polites or ‘citizen’ as someone who rules and is ruled in turn, making ‘citizenship’ conceptually inseparable from political governance (Aristotle, [350 BCE] 1968: 1275a23). Though most inhabitants of Athens, including the foreigner Aristotle himself, were ineligible to participate in citizenship thus understood, this ideal of citizenship as self-governance has often served since as an inspiration and instrument for political efforts to achieve greater inclusion and democratic engagement in political life. It continues to play that role in modern political discourse.

But for that very reason, this ancient idea of citizenship has often seemed politically threatening to many rulers, who have abolished or redefined the category. It was for this sort of political reason—because the regimes that had created citizenship succumbed to conquest by Alexander’s monarchical empire—that ancient Greek citizenship disappeared. And it was for a similar political reason—because the Roman republic gave way to imperial rule generated from within—that Roman citizenship came to have a different meaning than the one Aristotle articulated. In principle, Roman citizenship always carried with it the right to sit in the popular legislative assembly that had been the hallmark of Athenian citizenship. But as participation in that assembly became increasingly meaningless as well as impractical for most imperial inhabitants, Roman citizenship became essentially a legal status comparable to modern nationality (Pocock, 1995). It provided rights to legal protection by Roman soldiers and judges in return for allegiance to Rome. It no longer had any strong connection to actual practices of self-governance.

‘Citizenship’ was then eclipsed in the West by the various feudal and religious statuses of the medieval Christian world, but it did not vanish entirely. ‘Burghers’ or the ‘bourgeoisie’ were citizens of municipalities that often had some special if restricted rights of self-governance within feudal hierarchies. It was in fact in reference to this class of persons that the term ‘citizen’ first came to be commonly used in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Such burghers remained, however, fundamentally subjects of some ruling prince or lord, with their ‘citizenship’ chiefly providing legal rights of protection in the manner of Roman imperial citizenship. In contrast, during the Renaissance some Italian cities achieved both independence and a meaningful measure of popular self-governance. They invoked ancient ‘republican’ ideals of participatory citizenship to define and defend their regimes. Their experiences in turn fed into the anti-monarchical revolutions that created the first modern republics, including the short-lived seventeenth-century English Commonwealth and late eighteenth-century French Republic, as well as the still enduring United States (Pocock, 1975). It was here that modern citizenship took its basic form.

In complex fashion, those revolutions inaugurated transformations ‘from subject-ship to citizenship’ across much of the globe that are still ongoing today, when most of the world’s governments proclaim themselves to be ‘republics’ of some sort populated by ‘citizens.’ In eighteeenth-century North America and France, to be a ‘citizen’ was once again understood to be someone who shared in political self-governance, as in the ancient and Renaissance Italian city-states. Unlike the medieval European burghers, then, these modern ‘citizens’ were people who were emphatically not ‘subjects.’ They rejected rule by hereditary monarchical and aristocratic families in favor of a much broader community of political equals. But in these modern republics, self-governance by ‘citizens’ no longer took place chiefly in ‘cities.’ Rather, it occurred within ‘nations.’ These were substantially larger populations who could not possibly have face-to-face knowledge of each other, only some form of ‘imagined community,’ in Benedict Anderson’s valuable phrase (Anderson, 1983).

These ‘imagined communities’ could engage in self-governance, if at all, only through more extensive reliance on systems of representation—a reliance that became to many the distinguishing feature of modern republics. The authors of the Federalist Papers argued for the proposed US Constitution by applauding such representative systems as means to check the dangers of direct popular self-governance (Hamilton et al., [1788] 1987: 126, 372-3). Some French radicals influenced by Rousseau instead regarded elaborate structures of representation as dangers to true republican freedom (Higonnet, 1988: 220-8, 235). Still, those Rousseauean revolutionaries did not favor the creation of decentralized self-governing French city-states. Rather, they vigorously championed the concept of a large French nation, whom they claimed to represent directly. As that fact shows, in modern large-scale republics, there has simply been no practical alternative to extensive reliance on representative systems of self-government, except for effective abandonment of any meaningful self-governance at all.

Today, then, the core meaning of citizenship is membership with at least some rights of political participation in an independent republic that governs through some system of elected representatives—parliamentary, presidential, bicameral, unicameral, or some other variation. Such citizenship is understood to embrace not only various rights and privileges, including rights to participate politically, but also an ethos of at least some willingness to exercise these rights in ways that contribute to the common good. But the polity-wide assembly in which all citizens sit, deliberate and vote has effectively vanished from the modern world, as much or more than the hereditary aristocracies and monarchies that the American and French revolutionaries first assaulted. Only a few rare vestiges of direct, active, collective self-governance by the whole body of relevant citizens now exist, within sub-units such as small towns, counties, and school districts. And with the demise of the all-citizens assembly, expectations that most citizens will in fact be extensively involved in activities of political self-governance have also faded. As many have argued, citizenship in most modern societies rarely involves a strongly participatory public ethos or vigorous democratic practices (e.g. Barber, 1984, 1995).

How should we understand this transformation? How it has been bound up with the spread of the other meanings of modern citizenship that I have listed? Sheer logistical burdens in engaging in civic participation under the conditions that characterize large-scale modern republics surely provide a good portion of the answer; yet certain related political developments have also been more important than may first meet the eye.

The Politics of Modern Apolitical Citizenship

To show why, let me first make another run at the pertinent history. Men created the early modern republics, first the American, then the French, and then others, in an international realm that had been organized by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia into a system of mutual recognition among overwhelmingly monarchical nation-states. In gaining acceptance within that system, the new republics defined their citizens as having the same international status as national monarchical subjects. For international purposes, these citizens, too, were simply persons who owed allegiance to and could claim protection from particular sovereign governments. Whether those sovereigns were the representatives of the ‘sovereign people’ or were instead individual hereditary rulers, usurpers, or conquering despots made no difference to this legal status. Thus Westphalian international law gave no official recognition or significance to the ideological connection of modern republican citizenship with active self-governance, treating it instead as akin to the legalistic, protection-oriented, imperial version of Roman citizenship (Held, 1995: 74-83).

Furthermore, the first enduring modern republic, the United States, was forged amidst racial and gender hierarchies that few revolutionaries sought to challenge. Hence early American leaders felt compelled to argue that, though free blacks and women might be citizens, citizenship did not in fact inherently entail rights of political participation. It guaranteed, once again, only more limited rights to certain judicial and executive protections. Perhaps the most revealing example of this phenomenon in US law is the post-Civil War case of Minor v. Happersett (88 US 162, 1874). There a suffrage activist, Virginia Minor, argued that her citizenship in the American Republic under the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution logically required that she be granted voting rights, since voting was inherent in the core meaning of such citizenship. Chief Justice Morrison Waite of the United States Supreme Court ruled, however, that republican citizenship actually meant only ‘membership of a nation and nothing more.’ Later courts invoked this reasoning to justify restrictions on the franchise for other classes of citizens as well (R.M. Smith, 1997: 341-2, 408, 432). Parallel understandings of citizenship can be found in the law of other modern republics, most of which denied women and some other free adult citizens the franchise until the twentieth century, for similar reasons. For long stretches of time, then, both international and national politics worked to strengthen legalistic as opposed to more participatory conceptions of citizenship in many modern societies, despite the rise of modern republicanism.

But if lawyers have tended to treat modern ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’ as fundamentally identical terms, many contemporary political theorists and historians of political thought have analyzed the apparent declining emphasis on participatory citizenship in modern regimes in another way. They often distinguish between ‘liberal’ conceptions of citizenship, usually traced back to the seventeenth-century political tracts through which John Locke shaped the English and later the American Revolutions, and ‘republican’ conceptions of citizenship, often traced back to the eighteenth-century writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, if not to Machiavelli and Aristotle (Hutchings, 1999). ‘Liberal’ conceptions are said to present civic membership basically as an instrument of a diverse range of self-interested personal life plans, with the emphasis generally on seeking economic, religious, and familial fulfillment. The guarantees of basic protections from one’s regime contained in international law notions of citizenship are thought to be generally consonant with this ‘liberal’ view of citizenship, so long as basic human rights are not violated. In contrast, ‘republican’ conceptions still insist that citizenship must involve rights and practices of political participation to achieve common goods. Many modern regimes are then analyzed as combining ‘liberal’ and ‘republican’ civic elements. The resulting argument is that, for good or bad reasons or both, modern societies have simply moved toward more ‘liberal’ than ‘republican’ civic conceptions (e.g. Sandel, 1996).

These arguments are fine as far as they go, but there is much they omit. Not just the United States, but in fact most modern societies display not only liberal and republican civic traditions, but also long histories of governmental use of gendered, racialized, religious, nativistic, and other ascriptive categories to assign quite different civic statuses to different sets of people. Many of these categories are openly inconsistent with the requirements of respect for human rights built into most theoretical depictions of genuinely ‘liberal’ citizenship. Similarly, though republican views of citizenship often favor civic homogeneity as a means to strengthen civic commitments, they do not by themselves include or endorse notions of racial, ethnic, or religious superiority. Sociologists and historians, especially, have therefore often distinguished between two types of modern nations. ‘Civic’ nations base citizenship on acceptance of certain political principles and procedures, usually some combination of liberal and republican ones. ‘Ethnic’ nations instead stress hereditary ethnic, racial, or religious identities (e.g. Brubaker, 1992; Greenfeld, 1992; Ignatieff, 1993).

Though useful for some purposes, all these classifications fail, I believe, to recognize how modern forms of citizenship have emerged from political processes that predictably generate societies that do not fit readily into any of these pigeonholes. From the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, modern nations arose chiefly in struggles against preexisting monarchical regimes and against European colonial regimes, whether monarchical or not. In those political contests many revolutionaries found liberal notions of human rights and republican notions of popular sovereignty (along with later Marxist notions of proletarian destiny) useful in defining and legitimating their causes. Yet logically, many of those ideals threatened systems of political and economic power and status in which the revolutionaries were themselves invested, such as gender and ethnic hierarchies. Furthermore, doctrines of a liberal, republican, or workers’ state do not by themselves explain why people should embrace one particular liberal republic or workers’ state rather than another.

As a result of these political problems, the architects of modern forms of nationhood and citizenship have regularly blended liberal, republican, or Marxian elements with forms of nationalism and patriarchy that build on and adapt prevalent notions of ethnic, racial, religious and gender as well as class identities. In so doing they add to their notions of membership what I have termed politically useful ‘constitutive stories,’ accounts that make citizenship in a particular society seem intrinsic to the identities of their putative members. Racial, ethnic, gender, cultural, and religious ‘constitutive stories’ purport to define who we essentially are. They can readily be blended into accounts that present membership in a specific regime as our natural or divine destiny. If citizens accept such accounts, they are likely to be quite loyal to their regime. That is one reason why would-be leaders regularly propagate such stories; and in so far as the stories help to sustain regimes that express and advance the identities, interests, and ideals of those whom they valorize, many citizens also have strong incentives to embrace them (R.M. Smith, 2001).

When we attend to the political processes through which senses of peoplehood have been shaped, then, it seems less surprising that in reality there simply have never been any purely ‘liberal,’ ‘republican,’ or ‘liberal republican’ modern republics; and existing regimes have always mixed elements of ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationhood (cf. A.D. Smith, 1991). They still do. Even today, for instance, most people acquire their political citizenship through unchosen, often unexamined, hereditary descent, not because they explicitly embrace any political principles, liberal, republican, civic, or otherwise. Immigration policies in western Europe, the USA, and elsewhere generally include some sort of favoritism for those who can claim kinship with current citizens, without any effort to ascertain if their commitment to civic principles is really stronger than those of applicants with no citizen relatives. National and international courts in the USA and elsewhere also continue to make the narrower, protection-centered view of citizenship legally authoritative in many contexts, even when clearly illiberal, unrepublican ethnic nations are involved. Many more examples could be cited.

It remains true, however, that the citizenship laws of most modern societies have been altered over time in more ‘liberal,’ ‘republican,’ and ‘civic’ directions, with explicit racial, ethnic, gender, and religious bars to full citizenship being dropped. In the political contests that have produced these changes over the last two centuries, the notion that genuine citizenship involves rights of political participation has been a resonant rhetorical tool for legislative and constitutional reformers and revolutionaries. Those ideological arguments have been combined with active, sometimes violent, domestic protests and international pressures, especially the need for broad support in wartime, to produce dramatic changes. By the late twentieth century, reformers had used these means to achieve the extension of the franchise to all adult citizens, in the USA and most of the Western world. In America, blacks won both citizenship and voting rights after the Civil War, even though most came to be effectively disfranchised in the ‘Jim Crow’ era of racial segregation; and women gained the franchise after World War I. In both cases, arguments appealing to their public service, especially in wartime, and to the idea that true citizenship must include the franchise, played key roles in their successes (Foner, 1988; Flexner, 1973). World War II, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement also all contributed to the ending of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement and also US racial restrictions on naturalization and immigration during the 1950s and 1960s (Daniels, 1990). Other nations that had versions of some or all of these policies, such as Australia and South Africa, have since generally followed suit.

In Britain and to some degree in other Western European nations that had been politically configured essentially by feudal and industrial class systems, modern citizenship was wrought out via somewhat different struggles. As T.H. Marshall famously argued, first middle and then working class political pressures resulted in the expansion of civil rights of property and protection, then in near-universal rights of political participation, and finally and incompletely, in ‘social rights’ for all national citizens that included income, housing, medical, and educational guarantees (Marshall, 1950). Marshall’s argument has been so influential that many scholars and some political activists, especially in Europe, today equate genuine citizenship with full possession of all three types of rights: civil, political, and social. As a normative matter, that argument has power. But as a matter of historical analysis, Marshall’s class-centered account is not well equipped to explain many civic developments, including the back-and-forth pattern of racial and ethnic voting rights in US history and the battles over gender discrimination and representation that are still ongoing in both the US and Europe. Today, moreover, different modern states define the content and extent of Marshall’s three types of citizenship rights in ways that vary too greatly for his account to depict very concretely either the formal laws of citizenship or the broadly shared understandings of citizenship that prevail in most of the modern world (Turner, 1986).

Even so, Marshall’s analysis can help to highlight some striking features in the evolution of modern citizenship, and the apparent decline in participatory civic ideals, that I have been reviewing. Even as the franchise was broadened in the USA, Europe, and elsewhere, even as old class, racial, gender, religious, and other barriers to full and equal membership were increasingly discredited, the rise of ‘social rights’ of citizenship provided new arenas for what were in many cases continuing conflicts over genuine civic equality. In the USA, for example, New Deal social programs of poverty relief, unemployment assistance, job training, and social insurance often reflected and reinforced beliefs that women and racial minorities still played distinctive and lesser roles in the market place and political processes. They did so by giving women and minorities different and lesser benefits (Mettler, 1998; Lieberman, 1998). In the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, national and state legislators made many of those programs more inclusive; and in the Great Society years of the mid-1960s, new forms of educational and economic assistance, sometimes targeted at racial and ethnic minorities and women, were enacted. But from the late 1960s on, programs that were perceived as disproportionately aiding poor racial and ethnic minority members came under attack as inefficient and counterproductive, while measures explicitly aimed at aiding such groups were criticized as violating norms of equal citizenship (Quadagno, 1994).

The rise to power of Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in Britain made the 1980s an era in which many ‘social rights’ were reduced in these countries and, usually to lesser degrees, in many other advanced industrial societies as well. In some ways these developments ‘strengthened’ citizenship, as efforts mounted to prevent aliens from entering modern welfare states or from receiving full social benefits when they were present. But at the same time, these cutbacks in ‘social rights’ threatened to help perpetuate the more privileged statuses of higher-class, native-born, ethnically dominant groups and their political allies—privileged statuses to which modern citizenship laws had long contributed (Schuck, 1998). Partly as a result, many analysts have argued for increased representation of the interests of various sorts of disadvantaged groups, sometimes via official systems of ‘differentiated’ or ‘multicultural citizenship’ (Young, 1990, 2000; Kymlicka, 1995). Such advocacy has especially contributed to enhanced legal and political rights for native peoples and for women in a number of nations; but after the 1970s, the political tides were generally flowing against openly ‘differentiating’ civic policies in most locales.

These battles over the extension of various forms of social and political assistance to long disfranchised groups may also have contributed to the apparent increased modern apathy toward citizenship conceived as active participation in meaningful self-governance. Many have contended that when citizenship laws explicitly express racial, ethnic, gender, or religious identities (as, in fact, they have throughout most of modern history), they work against a strong sense of common citizenship (e.g. Lind, 1995). People are said to retreat instead into the lives of their multiple ‘cultural’ communities, in Balkanized fashion. Others contend that the movements against policies aiding the disadvantaged have worked to discredit the whole sphere of government in the minds of many of the better off, while these developments have simultaneously generated heightened political alienation and disaffection among the worse off. Both responses could well be working to foster widespread disengagement from active politics, by rich, poor, and middle classes alike. And even apart from their possible contributions to negative attitudes toward government, the economic and cultural developments that have led to a focus on activities in various social spheres may have also made traditional political activism simply seem less important. To many modern citizens, involvement in their social, economic, and cultural organizations may well appear more pressing.

For all these reasons, then, the term ‘citizenship’ may have become common in so many contexts beyond political self-governance because today it is in these other contexts that people find the memberships that mean the most to them, and in which they can act most effectively. It is there, too, that many now think citizenship understood as ‘good’ citizenship matters most. If so, then the inevitable corollary is that citizenship understood as political self-governance has indeed become quite secondary to the conscious concerns and activities of many modern citizens. Ironically, it seems that as citizenship has become ubiquitous, it has also become depoliticized, at least in so far as participation in formal self-governance is concerned. It is now more and more understood purely in terms of the latter three meanings with which we began—as an entitlement to legal protections and rights, of which political rights are the least important; as a label for membership in a whole variety of human associations; and as a normative conception of what good membership in all those groups involves. Citizenship as a political vocation is not an unknown concept today, to be sure; but it seems to be a vocation that relatively few now follow.

Political leaders frequently deplore this state of affairs when they wish for their citizens to provide more in the way of support and civic service. Still, few really try hard to combat it. It is probable that like their predecessors in other regimes, many who wield power in modern republics are content when those they govern think of citizenship chiefly in terms of subnational, often nongovernmental associations, and in terms of the ‘good citizen’s’ civic service rather than vigorous political activism.

Yet even if few policies within modern republics do much to enhance the feasibility and potency of such activism, it is not clear that this fact is to be wholly regretted. If various economic, social, and cultural groups represent the forms of association and activity that people value most, then respect for persons and their free choices may well mean accepting the modern minimization of participatory republican or democratic citizenship. On the other hand, if such acceptance also means embracing policies that effectively perpetuate or even deepen the class, racial, gender, ethnic, and religious inequalities that have been central to the civic lives of most modern regimes, even those who are not advocates of strongly participatory ideals may have cause for concern. Hence the question of whether political life can be conducted successfully in modern republics with diminishing levels of civic involvement is one that these developments in modern citizenship have inescapably placed on the agenda today.

The Prospect of Postnational Citizenships

The circumstances of the twenty-first century, however, increasingly cast a new light on all these matters. Though some scholars and democratic activists lament what they see as the eclipse or decline of modern republican national citizenship, others react quite differently. They stress that the heightened transnational economic, transportation, and communication systems that we call ‘globalization’ are in any case making traditional notions of national citizenship obsolete (Soysal, 1994; Jacobson, 1996; cf. Miller, 1995). The old sovereign nation-state, such writers insist, is on the way out. Regional associations, international legal institutions, and transnational economic, cultural, and political organizations, all ‘semi-sovereign’ in some spheres of some people’s lives, are said to be more likely to shape humanity’s future than existing national regimes. Hence membership in such bodies will rightly represent the most important forms of ‘citizenship’ in the twenty-first century. The redirection of participation toward ‘good citizenship’ in a grand plethora of human associations, in a manner akin to the democratic vision of John Dewey, can be understood as the appropriate realization of ancient participatory ideals in the new millennium.

There is much to these arguments. The fact that such ‘globalizing’ trends exist is undeniable; though it must quickly be added that usually, national governmental actors remain the central players even in transnational or international organizations and institutions. Despite advances in communication and transportation, moreover, meaningful participation in the governance of such populous and geographically far-flung entities can seem even more chimerical for most people than it is within existing nation-states. Advocates of ‘global citizenship’ or ‘cosmopolitan citizenship’ respond that such concerns fail to appreciate the democratic opportunities that emerge when old forms of national sovereignty are shattered and governance is performed at many levels. Some supranational organizations may be beyond the reach of most of those they affect, but some transnational groups will not be massively populated and may be more electronically interconnected on a daily basis. Furthermore, these advocates stress that governmental power can often safely be decentralized, going down and out as well as up, with a great number of important decisions being made henceforth in local communities that can in some regards approximate the old ideal of democratic city-states (Held, 1995; Linklater, 1999). To varying degrees, such devolution is indeed visible in the modern policies of many modern Western states, including Canada, the United States, and most dramatically in the United Kingdom, where the Welsh and Scots now have their own national legislatures. Thus there is a real prospect that the idea of ‘citizenship’ will increasingly be severed not only from engagement in traditional forms of self-governance, but even from membership in some single, titularly sovereign political community. The term ‘citizenship’ may instead become all the more ubiquitous, but now with its dominant meaning referring to all memberships in any of a wide variety of human groups, to many of which persons will belong simultaneously.

There are, however, both normative and empirical reasons to raise doubts about this scenario. Normatively, skeptical analysts ask pointedly where the motivation for constructive participation in public life will arise when people feel themselves only partial members of many political associations, most of which they join only for narrow instrumental reasons, having only the faintest sense of shared identity with their fellow ‘citizens’ (Miller, 1999). And as a matter of empirical political behavior, history suggests that the leaders of political communities rarely give up power willingly. Therefore it is not surprising that efforts to resist globalizing trends and reinvigorate loyalties to existing nations and regimes are also visible players in modern ‘citizenship politics,’ particularly in regard to immigration policies. Under conditions of economic hardship, international conflict, or simply increased governance by remote supranational bureaucracies, moreover, it is possible that many more people will come to feel concerned about the decline in forms of citizenship through which they can exercise some genuine control over their collective lives. The fact that political and social reform movements have often gained wide support by insisting that citizenship means sharing in governance shows that such feelings can be politically powerful fuel driving quite important changes. Given the incentives and the skills political leaders have to channel such feelings into support for existing forms of political community, these circumstances may well mean that radical changes will come less rapidly than some analysts now expect. The enormous difficulties in creating a truly all-encompassing global government mean, moreover, that memberships in particular political communities of some sort are likely to remain important features of human life, even if those communities do come to be constituted in new ways, as they frequently have been in the past.

Thus we cannot rule out the possibility that both existing political memberships and older notions of participatory citizenship will continue to play important roles in the recrafting of political institutions and communities that the twenty-first century will inevitably see. Whether those recraftings will go so far as to mean the end of the nation-state or whether they instead produce some less radical transformations remains to be seen. But whatever forms of citizenship result, they will almost certainly be the ongoing products of intense political contests that distribute powers and memberships to some people and not others. These distributions will be all the more controversial because they will also convey to citizens only some sorts of civil, political, and social rights, protections, and resources, and not others. Hence though citizenship in the twenty-first century may in some respects look sharply different than citizenship today, just as modern citizenship is different than medieval or ancient citizenship, in some fundamental regards citizenship will probably remain what it has long been: a political status of profound importance for the well-being both of those who fully and securely possess it, and of those who do not.