The Need for 21st Century Citizenship

Frank Islam & Ed Crego
6 min readMar 3, 2023
Image Credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, etc.

Many think that the official motto of the United States is ‘e pluribus unum” — from many one. It is not. In fact, given the national drift toward divisiveness over the past few years, that saying should probably be reversed to “e unum pluribus” — from one many.

That was the opening of a chapter titled “Citizenship Dysfunction: Coming Together or Coming Apart?” in our book: Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again published in 2013 (Pivot Points).

We wrote Pivot Points to call attention to a problem that concerned citizens could come together to address. At that time, we didn’t think the separation between us could get much worse.

We were wrong. In the past decade, the separation has become a chasm. The American citizenry is polarized. This is the bad news.

The good news is that Richard Haass, president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, has written a new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens (Obligations), which was released in late January. Haass’ book, in conjunction with the conversations that he had discussing its relevance and recommendations with pundits and experts on the Morning Joe show in the week of January 23–27, have brought this topic front and center in 2023.

It provides us the opportunity to reiterate once again that it is time for 21st century citizenship. In fact, it is well past time.

Haass acknowledges this fact in Part One of Obligations titled “The Crisis of Our Rights-Based Democracy.” After discussing the nature and identifying some of the reasons for the crisis, that Part concludes as follows;

Again, many readers will have their own ideas. We might be better off if some or even many of these changes came to pass. But few are likely to, in no small part because the same problems that have led to the weakening of democracy have made it difficult to fix it. It is not just that the process of reform is arduous, it is more that those who perceive the changes would restrain their rights will oppose them. This is where obligations come in: American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.

Haass nails it in terms of the difficulty of bringing about meaningful change and the need to persevere to do so. We comment similarly in Pivot Points, stating “As we close this book, it becomes clear that working and moving forward on the pivot points is a long hard slog. It is a marathon and not a 100-yard dash. It requires patience and persistence and the ability to come back again and again after defeats.”

Haass also nails it in naming his first two obligations: Obligation I: Be Informed. Obligation II. Get Involved. We identified those obligations as the characteristics of the 21st Century Citizen and added three more in Pivot Points: Interested. Issues-Oriented. Independent.

Below, in order are our operational definitions for those characteristics:

  • Interested: concerned about the common good and the American community as opposed to purely pecuniary or personal concerns
  • Issues-oriented: focused on areas of civic and social concern as opposed to rigid ideologies
  • Informed: dedicated to gathering and analyzing objective data as the basis for civic and social engagement
  • Independent: committed to exercising personal judgment as opposed to taking totally partisan positions
  • Involved: engaged actively in addressing those issues that are of paramount concern to our citizens, communities and the nation.

Haass and we are not the only ones who have advanced the cause of good citizenship. A former president has done so as well.

No, it was not Donald Trump. It was Barack Obama.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 2012, Obama declared, “But we also believe in citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”

President Obama went on to emphasize that “We the people — recognize that we have rights as well as responsibilities.” The emphasis throughout the President’s speech was on shared obligations and responsibilities.

Civic engagement is central to fulfilling those shared obligations and responsibilities.

The best definition of civic engagement that we have seen comes from a collection of readings titled Civic Responsibility and Higher Education.

That definition states:

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

In our opinion, civic engagement takes five primary forms:

  • Individual — being the best one can be and responsible for one’s actions
  • Organizational — contributing to the success of the groups (e.g., business, religion, associations) to which one belongs
  • Political — participating in those processes that shape the structure and nature of government
  • Community — collaborating to make the locale and the world in which we live a better place
  • Social — advocating for justice and equality of treatment and opportunity for all

Positive civic engagement and the sharing of obligations and responsibilities is essential for a democracy to be successful. This requires the capacity to collaborate with others having different points of view in order to achieve a compromise.

The importance of this attribute is demonstrated by the fact that Richard Haass named his Obligation III: Stay Open to Compromise. Unfortunately, in this 21st century, compromise has become a dirty word for many elected officials and citizens.

Politics has become tribal. We retreat to our own camps and our ability to talk with or listen to someone from the opposing camp who has different values, attitudes, and beliefs has become virtually impossible. We literally don’t trust one another.

That’s why, in our first blog posted in 2020, we chose trust as our word of the year for 2019. We selected trust not because of its presence in 2019 but its absence.

As we noted back then, the Pew Research Center is a definitive source of information on trust. In April 2018 through the end of 2019, the Pew Center intensified its research on trust, facts, and democracy publishing thirty new pieces disclosing that the trust gap between and among us as citizens has widened significantly over the past several years.

A Pew study released in October 2019 revealed that Democrats and Republicans did agree on one thing — that they can’t agree. 73% of those partisans surveyed said “On important issues facing the country, most Republican voters and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts.”

This wide separation of opinions and positions continues. As William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution reports, various polls conducted throughout 2022 show Americans are divided regarding the significance of January 6 and how much responsibility Donald Trump bears for what happened on that date on which the U.S. Capitol was stormed.

Put this all together and it illustrates the growing nature of the need. The need was great in 2013. It is much greater today.

Richard Haass has issued a wake-up call. We are confident that 21st century citizens will hear that call, recognizing that there is a dire need for them to continue to work to bridge the divides, recognizing that there will be no quick or easy resolution.

Because 21st century citizens understand this, we close this blog in 2023 as we did our book in 2013,

We think and say give them time, too — the pivot points and those pivot persons (citizens and leaders) who will continue to work those points until the necessary and desired outcome is achieved.

It may not be this year. It may not be the next. It may take until the end of this decade — and possibly even longer. Eventually it will be done because time is on the side of those with patience, persistence and principles to work the pivot points to make America work again.

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.



Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.