Once in a while I come across a book that hits on so many points of importance that I decide to devote an entire blog post to it. The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, by Richard Haass, falls into that category.
Dr. Haass is president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. A diplomat and policymaker, he served in The Pentagon, State Department, and White House under four presidents – Democrats and Republicans.
Here’s a quote from the book jacket: “As Richard Haass says, ‘We get the government we deserve. Getting the one we need, however, is up to us.’ The Bill of Obligations gives citizens across the political spectrum a plan of action to achieve it.”
In the chapter titled “Rights and Their Limits,” Dr. Haass states that the aim of his book “… is to focus on another, often overlooked dimension of citizenship. I am speaking here of obligations, of what citizens owe one another and the country,” and not the rights of individuals. The book focuses on what citizens should do, not what they are required to do.
Dr. Haass draws a distinction between responsibilities and obligations. Responsibilities can be shirked. He says, “What makes obligations so important is that the ability of American democracy to endure and deliver what it can and should to its citizens depends on their being put into practice.”
He points out that, “Placing obligations at the core of citizenship is necessary because the protection and promotion of political and economic rights inevitably lead to disagreements.” He likens obligations fueling a democracy to the gasoline that fuels an engine.
Dr. Haass maintains that democracy in the US “has come to focus almost exclusively on perceived rights and is breaking down as a result.”
This book was being written during our time of transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration, and the “peaceful transition of Power” enjoyed by the US for more than 200 years was in question. He wrote, “What we don’t yet know is whether what happened in late 2020 and early 2021 was an aberration or a precedent.”
Although some Americans have predicted that we’re heading for a second civil war, Dr. Haass is of the opinion that the more likely scenario is something similar to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland where paramilitary groups target public places frequented by those people they oppose. Unlike a civil war, such violence has no set beginning and no set end because no one is in charge.
Dr. Haass reminds us that democracy is difficult. It requires informed participation from its citizens. From its leaders “it asks for good faith and restraint, and a willingness to put the collective interest before politics, party, or personal gain.”
My take on that
In my opinion, we’ve lost all of that. Too many people refuse to watch the news on TV “because it’s all bad” and few people read a newspaper now or seek out alternative news sources such as National Public Radio. Too many people say they aren’t interested in politics. It’s too easy to just say all politicians and government employees are bad people or lazy.
I’ve worked in the business world and in the government. It was my experience that government employees were more dedicated and conscientious than the ones I worked with in the business world. Let’s just stop jumping on the bandwagon of throwing everyone and everything associated with our democracy “under the bus.”
Back to Dr. Haass’ book
Dr. Haass writes about how technology has changed politics in an important way. It happened without our even being aware. Whereas political parties used to have some control over who ran for office, now anyone with enough money and technical communications savvy can run for office.
Extremists can rally vocal followers and spread their views (and their lies) through social media in ways unheard of or imagined just a couple of decades ago. The person with the loudest voice gets the attention, even if that person holds narrow or extreme views.
The book talks about how, like me, the author grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. We were taught in school that America was “a melting pot.” More and more, though, Dr. Haass says instead of a melting pot, we’re “a loose collection of separate pots” now. We live in “Red” states or “Blue” states, and few live in “Purple” states. There are divisions on every turn.
He goes on to write about history, values, and obligations not being taught in school.
The second part of Dr. Haass’ book addresses what he calls The Bill of Obligations. He writes about what he means by each one, but I’ll just list them for you here:
- Be Informed
- Get Involved
- Stay Open to Compromise
- Remain Civil
- Reject Violence
- Value Norms
- Promote the Common Good
- Respect Government Service
- Support the Teaching of Civics
- Put Country First
Dr. Haass’ Conclusion
Quoting from the “Conclusion” chapter of the book: “The central argument of this book is that American democracy will endure only if obligations join rights at the core of a widely shared understanding of citizenship.” It won’t happen overnight, but the rewards will be reaped years from now.
Dr. Haass proposes that we turn our attention to making the ten obligations a priority because all the “hot button” issues vying for our attention will not be solved or resolved if they aren’t debated in a vibrant democracy.
In the end, Dr. Haass sounds the alarm: “The reality that January 6, and the subsequent revelations about efforts to impound voting machines and discount legally cast ballots, has failed to shock the body politic into its senses, has failed to stir us into action to protect and preserve this democracy, challenges the conventional wisdom that crises are automatic precursors of change. We get the government and the country we deserve. Getting the one we need, however, is up to us.”
Regardless of your political leanings, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to read The Bill of Obligations. There’s much food for thought in this small book. My hope is that reading it will prompt each of us in the US to be better citizens and more-informed about our democracy.
For the most part, I agree with Dr. Haass’ Bill of Obligations. I’m not as optimistic as he is, though. I recently said something to a university sophomore about January 6. She didn’t know what I was talking about!
Since my last blog post
I’ve been diagnosed as having bronchitis and asthma. Instead of sending out my newsletter on Monday, I finally got it together and emailed to my subscribers on Thursday. I’ve fallen woefully behind in reading the posts by the bloggers I follow.
My illness forced me to miss an author event by John Hart. I didn’t think Mr. Hart should have to compete with my hacking and coughing.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read.
Don’t take good health and supportive friends and family for granted.
Remember the brave people of Ukraine.
Thank you for dropping by my blog.