What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?

Launching "Citizen Talks" video series with first guest Rosie O'Donnell

One of the lingering “what ifs” of the 2016 presidential election concerns how many people voted and how many people stayed home. While Hillary Clinton received 28.4% of all votes (65,845,063) and Trump got 27.2% of all votes (62,980,160), the largest bloc was those who did not show up. That was 44.37% of all eligible voters—or 102,731,399 Americans.

Yes, more than 100 million Americans decided not to perform this most fundamental duty as a citizen in a democracy. Put aside all those tens of millions who thought Donald Trump would be better for America than Hillary Clinton; most Americans thought the choice didn’t even require them to get off their couches or leave their houses or send in a ballot to let their vote—their voice—be tallied. Imagine how different our world would be if they had actually cared.

The last four years changed the equation. The 2020 election resulted in the largest turnout in raw numbers in the nation’s history: 158.4 million votes were cast. That was 66.2 percent of eligible voters, which was an increase of 7 percentage points over 2016 and the highest voter turnout since at least 1980. (Biden-Harris got 81,268,924 of those votes—over 7 million more than Trump.)

Part of the credit goes to early and mail-in voting, but we also can infer that more Americans had come to understand that their participation was needed—that they had a responsibility to have their voice heard. Indeed, 83 percent of registered voters said before the election “it really matters” who wins the presidency this time.

As citizenship goes, that’s something, especially as we witness the ugly push by Republicans to deny the “wrong” voters the right to vote.

But the question of what it means to be a citizen has evolved in recent years, especially for all those who used to take freedom and democracy for granted in America—many who never thought they needed to participate or speak out.

I would argue that the dangers of the Trump era, which we are still battling, continue to raise doubts about how long we can retain our democracy as long as there’s a major party more than ready to toss aside free and fair elections to hold onto power. Worse, we’ve seen half of Republicans now willing to deny the truth about violent extremists attacking our own Capitol, as if it only was an effort by anti-Trump agitators determined to make their beloved leader look bad.

Take a look at a 2018 Pew Research survey on what good citizenship includes, and you’ll find a good amount of agreement among the majority of Democrats and Republicans: vote, pay your taxes, follow the law, serve jury duty. As you might expect, citizen actions like displaying the American flag, protesting against the government, and knowing the Pledge of Allegiance were seen quite differently by Democrats and Republicans.

In the coming weeks here, I will have more to to say about citizenship, including the efforts of violent white supremacists during Reconstruction who were dedicated to denying civil and political rights to formerly enslaved people. Well before the Civil War, those in power held tightly to the idea that America was a “white man’s democracy.”

I’m launching “Citizen Talks” next week to begin conversations with fellow citizens, to learn from and share their insights and experiences about what it means these days to be a citizen—what are the responsibilities of citizenship. Rather than focus on politicians and the usual cadre of political types, I’ll be speaking to smart and insightful people from various walks of life to share their thoughts.

I’m excited to say that Rosie O’Donnell, the talented actress, comedian, producer, former co-host of “The View” and long-time critic of one Donald J. Trump, has agreed to join me for this first “Citizen Talks” conversation. That’s next Thursday, April 15, at 5PM ET.

We’ll use Zoom video to connect. And I hope you want to hear what Rosie has to say. I know I sure do, especially because I’ve seen how she’s taken responsibility to speak out about the dangers our country faced with Trump in the White House.

If you want to be in the room to ask questions during the Q&A, you’ll need to be a paid subscriber. There will be an opportunity for everyone to hear the conversation later, but our growing list of paid subscribers will be able to be there for the live conversation.

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