We The People State Finals –
February 20, 2000
The Role of the Citizen in the 21st Century
Secretary of State, Deborah L. Markowitz
I want to begin by thanking Bill Haynes for inviting me to speak before you
today, and I also want to congratulate all of you for the incredible task you
have undertaken -- to learn about the institutions of our unique American
constitutional democracy. This is, perhaps, the most important course of study
you will embark on an as a high school student -- because within this curriculum
are the tools to build a new generation of civic leaders.
I was asked to speak about the role of the citizen in the 21st
What is it to be a citizen? I think at the most basic level it's
believing in something greater than yourself and acting on that belief.
An active citizen understands the benefits - and the honor - and the
obligations of living in a democracy. We are lucky to live in a democracy
where we have the right to speak what we believe, the right to petition our
government. One of the most vivid images I ever saw that brought this message
home to me occurred when most of you here were about 9 years old. Do you
remember the pictures of the Chinese student who stood in front of a tank in
Tienamen square in China? That student was willing to risk being killed –
and, indeed, many were killed, in an effort to bring democracy to China When I
saw that photo I felt in my gut the truth that we cannot take the freedom that
our democracy guarantees us for granted. That we are lucky to live in the place
- and in the time that we do.
One of the most moving stories of the honor and obligations of living in a
democracy I ever heard is about presidential candidate John McCain. John McCain
served in Vietnam and was captured by the North Vietnamese. And despite his
broken bones, and being sick all the time, and being subjected to torture, he
refused the North Vietnamese offer of release because he believed in something
greater than himself. The military code provides that prisoners of war must
insist on being released in order of their capture. He stuck to his principles -
principles grounded in the belief that if we are not for each other - following
a common set of rules - then we will lose the privilege, dignity and honor we
share as free people.
In the United States, I have observed, there are at least four kinds of
- The Apathetic Citizen is the person who
finds him or herself to be too busy or involved with the drama of his or
her own life to notice or participate in the affairs of their community,
state or nation. We might hear these people complain about the
government or the way things are heading in the country but only in very
general ways -mostly they don't read the papers (except maybe the
sports section) or even watch the news.
- The Passive Citizen is the person who
watches what goes on in politics - in international affairs but does not
believe that he or she can have an effect – this person feels
helpless. These citizens might vote - or might not - since they often
believe that it won't really make a difference anyway.
- The Active Citizens are our habitual voters
- they are the ones that might volunteer for citizen boards or might
participate in the Parent Teacher Organization or volunteer at a soup
kitchen. These people know that they can have an immediate effect on
their local community and have a belief that their vote counts - or that
even if it doesn't (like when exit polls show that a particular
candidate has won because of the election results in eastern states)
that, as a citizen of a free country - a democracy - it is our
individual responsibility to participate – These citizens believe
that it is their obligation and privilege to vote. (Most of our
grandparents - most first and second generation Americans would never
miss the chance to vote because they can vividly remember what it was
like not to be allowed to participate in the choosing of ones own
- The Citizen leaders are the people who, when they see problems, or
when they have good ideas about the direction of their community, or country
or state, these citizens are not afraid to speak up - these citizens
understand that they can make a difference. These are the people who step up to the
plate - that not only vote, but who work on campaigns or who write
letters to the editor. That not only volunteer in their community, but
go to the legislature to testify on the need to solve the underlying
problems. That not only observe government and politics but, perhaps,
run for office themselves.
So what kind of citizens are we?
For four decades this country has seen a marked decline in voting. President
Lyndon Johnson called voting "the first duty of democracy." But if a
majority of Americans are not even fulfilling the most basic requirement of
citizenship -- only 49 percent voted in 1996 – and only 36% in the 1998
midterm election - then they are not likely to be involved in the many other
duties and responsibilities of maintaining a democratic society. Nobody can say
for sure how long a country can remain truly democratic when it lives off of its
political and social capital. But we do know that the prospect of a democracy
without citizens is a sobering oxymoron.
At mid-century, the American educator Robert Maynard Hutchins warned that
"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush.
It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and
undernourishment." This is what we risk by being apathetic and passive
Now, at the close of the century and the dawn of a new millennium, we have a
challenge to reinvigorate our democracy. In this regard, there can be no higher
priority than to inspire democracy's next generation of citizens and leaders. (I
am talking about all of you!)
The "New Millennium Generation" - the more than 70million American
youth is the largest generation of young people in our country's history, even
larger than the Baby Boom generation. This new generation will redefine society
in the 21st century. It is not an exaggeration to say that the
strength or weakness of American democracy in the 21st century will
be determined - to a very large extent - by the attitudes and actions that young
Americans bring into the larger society over the next decade or so.
So lets think for a moment about what gets people to take the next step
– what inspires us to active citizenship or to citizen leadership? Lets
consider three examples from Vermont's history:
Though a relative newcomer to the area, this man accepted his
neighbors' request for help in defending their property rights. He made
the difficult trip to appear before the decidedly hostile government officials.
Rebuffed without fair hearing, he returned home and devoted the remainder of his
life to representing the rights of his neighbors. He would accomplish a
remarkable revolution and become the most cherished symbol of his State's
Another young man, who fashioned a small strawberry patch into an
international wildflower business, took the time to serve on local governing
boards. When private utility companies and the state government proposed a
series of flood control dams which would flood his community, he ran for the
state legislature. Though a freshman, he blocked the dam projects. He spent the
next forty-five years representing his town and state and become perhaps the
most honored Vermonter of the 20th century.
Finally, a dangerous railroad crossing raised a mother's concerns about her
children's safety. She organized her neighbors to successfully petition
government to install safety devices at the crossing. A refugee from the horrors
of Nazi Europe, she was moved by the experience of making government responsive
to local needs. She subsequently embarked on a political career in local, state,
national, and, ultimately, inter-national government.
Who were these people? The first was Ethan Allen, who helped create the State
of Vermont over the active opposition of New York and against the backdrop of
the American Revolution.
The second was George Aiken, who was elected Putney's town representative in
1930 and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1941 until 1975. From his
support for such social programs as Women, Infant, and Children to his Vietnam
War stance that we should simply declare a victory and leave, Aiken provided
Vermont an effective and compassionate voice in national affairs.
The third was Madeleine Kunin who rose through Vermont politics to become our
first woman governor and later served in the U. S. Department of Education and
then as our ambassador to Switzerland. She currently is on the faculty of
Because each of these Vermonters gained national and even inter-national
recognition, it's easy to forget that at some point in their lives they
made an initial decision to get involved. Though they lived in different time
periods and followed different paths, each shared common beliefs. Each felt that
they, as individuals, could make a difference. Each believed that
government could be a positive force. Each felt a responsibility to
give back their communities.
It could be a railroad crossing or a tank rolling down your street –
but whether it is wildflowers or tanks, the message is the same. At some point
in our lives something must inspire us to think beyond ourselves - beyond our
own, personal interests. Something must inspire us to act, and someone must
inspire us to know that we have power to make change if we choose to take it.
This inspiration can come from an educational experience - like the We the
People Program - or from a parent or teacher or other role model. It can come
from an individual experience where we see first hand how one person can make a
You know, there are two kinds of civic obligations. One type of civic
obligation is coercive – like the military draft or the obligation to pay
taxes. The other kind of civic obligations arise from our hearts. They rise up
from the knowledge that the benefits and honor of living in a democracy requires
each of us to act – like voting or serving in local office. But it is also
the obligation to speak up against injustice where we live.
I believe that each of us who experience the benefits of living in our free
society can know, in our hearts, that we have an obligation to take the power
that is given to us - by serving on the planning commission or by voting, or by
standing up to what we believe is wrong.
To live here in this country is an honor. And with that privilege there comes
obligations. One of the privileges we are given in our American democracy
is that each of us has been given the power to play a part in our unique system
of self-government. However, unless we step up to the plate and take that power
- by voting (at the most simple level) or volunteering in our communities, or
indeed, running for state wide office we will not have any power. Indeed, the
obligation that comes from living in a free society is to take, and to use well,
the power that has been given to us.
Your experience with We the People is a great first step in this direction. I
wish you all the very best in your future. Thank you.