It is increasingly common to see a new kind of academic/trade press hybrid, whose central theme is to proclaim the centrality of obligations alongside rights. What is especially notable is that the authors of these books are generally liberal in political orientation (and I mean this primarily in the non-partisan sense). The reasons for the proliferation of this type of book are complex, as are, I think, the many difficulties that attend these proposals, precisely from within the general perspective that they tend to operate. But the general trend in offering accounts of the importance of obligation, of what binds the polity and its people, of what constitutes community and is necessary for its sustenance–all of these I think are interesting and important developments.
Here is a new book by Richard Haass, the former diplomat and government official in several administrations, very much in this line: The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens (Penguin Random House), out later this month. Note especially Haass’s emphasis on “habits.” The centrality of habits, customs, and…well, traditions, in creating a sense of mutual political obligation goes back well before the creation of the American Bill of Rights.
The United States faces dangerous threats from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, terrorists, climate change, and future pandemics. The greatest peril to the country, however, comes not from abroad but from within, from none other than ourselves. The question facing us is whether we are prepared to do what is necessary to save our democracy.
The Bill of Obligations is a bold call for change. In these pages, New York Times bestselling author Richard Haass argues that the very idea of citizenship must be revised and expanded. The Bill of Rights is at the center of our Constitution, yet our most intractable conflicts often emerge from contrasting views as to what our rights ought to be. As former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out, “Many of our cases, the most difficult ones, are not about right versus wrong. They are about right versus right.” The lesson is clear: rights alone cannot provide the basis for a functioning, much less flourishing, democracy.
But there is a cure: to place obligations on the same footing as rights. The ten obligations that Haass introduces here are essential for healing our divisions and safeguarding the country’s future. These obligations reenvision what it means to be an American citizen. They are not a burden but rather commitments that we make to fellow citizens and to the government to uphold democracy and counter the growing apathy, anger, selfishness, division, disinformation, and violence that threaten us all. Through an expert blend of civics, history, and political analysis, this book illuminates how Americans can rediscover and recover the attitudes and behaviors that have contributed so much to this country’s success over the centuries.
As Richard Haass argues, “We get the government and the country 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.