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Why Does Citizenship Matter?

• August 26, 2013 • 8:00 AM

A dual citizen may bear two passports. (PHOTO: LANICOYA-/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

How national affiliation became such an important part of our personal identity.

Ted Cruz, the GOP’s junior United States senator from Texas and a 2016 presidential hopeful, announced last Monday that he was officially renouncing his Canadian citizenship. Cruz, who was born in Calgary in 1970 to a Cuban father and an American mother, apparently believed that it was time to give up his foreign citizenship because, as he put it: “I may technically have dual citizenship. Assuming that is true, then sure, I will renounce any Canadian citizenship. … I’m an American by birth and as a U.S. Senator, I believe I should be only an American.”

Somehow he had no problem being something other than “only an American” while serving as solicitor general of Texas, director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission, or associate deputy attorney general in the Bush Justice Department.

As Jason Easley writes at Politics USA, the Cruz problem is just that he might not seem like “enough of an American to satisfy the tea party wing of the Republican Party. … Cruz had to go birther on himself and proclaim that he is the most American American that has ever lived in America.” Cruz is giving up his foreign citizenship to appear as all-American as possible to a political base that distrusts foreigners, even Canadians.

This appears to be an effort to avoid what some have termed President Barack Obama’s “birther” problem. You remember it: Israeli dentist Orly Taitz spread a rumor during the 2008 election that Obama was born in Kenya and thus was unqualified to serve in the Oval Office. (The president was born in Hawaii, and his mother was a U.S. citizen from Kansas.) If Cruz is eligible to be president, so is Obama, even birther Obama. But Cruz also released his birth certificate to the mostly indifferent American public just to be sure to cover all of his bases.

But what is citizenship, really? Why does it matter, and why does it keep coming up in political debates?

The idea of the modern state—that a country exists as an independent entity equal to other states and composed of distinct borders and peoples with rights and privileges that do not necessarily apply to the people in other countries—is a relatively new idea. Citizenship of one country, and even the notion of a country itself, are relatively recent developments as far as human history is concerned.

Frederick V, king of Bohemia. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Frederick V, king of Bohemia. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

While the Roman Empire maintained a concept of citizenship that might be familiar to Americans today—citizens had certain privileges and duties connected to their relationship to the empire, though there were also vast swaths of the Roman population who weren’t citizens—by the Middle Ages citizenship was replaced by a complicated system of loyalties. During this period, “citizenship” was usually associated with cities only. Peasants owed their protection to a local aristocrat, who owed his protection to the king, who might owe his protection to some greater confederation.

And “national” identity was even more fluid until the 19th century. People, rulers in particular, chose affiliations in ways that look very unusual to today’s observers.

In 1810, French General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was elected heir to the throne of Sweden. He just packed up his things, changed his religion, and moved on over to Stockholm. His descendants continue to rule the country to this day.

In 1700, the king of France’s grandson, the Duke of Anjou, left his grandfather’s kingdom to go and become king of Spain.

And in 1619, Frederick V, a Calvinist from Bavaria, left Germany to move to Prague so that he could become the king of Bohemia (PDF), a largely Catholic region dominated by the Czechs.

The brief, astoundingly unsuccessful reign of Frederick as king of Bohemia led to the Thirty Years War. This protracted contest involved virtually all of Europe in constantly shifting groups of alliances and counter-alliances that would seem dizzying to any of today’s political observers.

At one point Sweden “captured” a German fortress without any battle. Mercenary soldiers of the king of Spain held a large fort for some time, but when the king ran out of money to pay his army, the soldiers (quite sensibly) offered their services to the king of Sweden instead. The war ended three decades later with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the birth of the concept of the nation state. From then on people “belonged” to nations. They were no longer, for the most part, mere residents of physical land that could change due to wars and marriages and the whims of royalty.

Michael Vaughan of the University of Queensland wrote in a paper (PDF) presented in 2011:

This Westphalian order assumed a vital importance for three main reasons. First, it secularised international politics by divorcing it from any particular religious footing, anchoring it instead on the tenets of national interest and reasons of state. Second, it promoted sovereignty, the legal doctrine that no higher authority stands above the state, except that to which the state voluntarily assents. Third, it accepted a conception of international society based on the legal equality of states. All sovereign states possessed the same rights and duties. They had the right to manage matters within their boundaries without outside interference, as well as the duty to abstain from intervening in the domestic affairs of other states. The Peace of Westphalia overturned the medieval system of centralised religious authority and replaced it with a decentralised system of sovereign, territorial states.

This is the idea that a ruler or government holds supreme authority within a sovereign territory, and only within that territory. The residents, by virtue of birth or residence, are also subject to the laws and benefits that come with the territory.

The United States might be more powerful than Canada by almost every measure, but, while the president of the United States enjoys considerable influence over other countries, he cannot tell Canada how to behave and expect to be obeyed. Similarly, the pope might have a spiritual army of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, but he cannot issue legally-binding orders to the people and governments of Ireland or Costa Rica.

One has an identity and a legal relationship to the land and the government of a territory. The French Revolution furthered this concept. For if Westphalia established sovereignty and the importance of territory determining legality and the rules of a state, the French Revolution helped to establish the rights and privileges of the people within that state.

During the French Revolution the revolutionaries eliminated all other titles and forms of address. No longer were people subjects of his majesty the king; from henceforth they were only citizens of the republic of France. Sociologist Rogers Brubaker explains how citizenship happened:

As a democratic revolution, it changed the privileges one had as an inhabitant of a given city, or as a member of a guild or corporation, into rights one was granted in their quality as an inhabitant of a state. The concept of citizenship is composed of three main elements or dimensions. 1) citizenship as legal status, defined by civil, political and social rights. Here, the citizen is the legal person free to act according to the law and having the right to claim the law’s protection. 2) citizens specifically as political agents, actively participating in a society’s political institutions. 3) citizenship as membership in a political community that furnishes a distinct source of identity.

The French even (briefly) referred to each other as “citizen.” The king of France, Louis XVI, was executed as “Citoyen Louis Capet.” And in 1799 Napoleon was elected first consul of the directory of the republic as Citoyen Napoléon Bonaparte.

The revolution undermined the privileges of the aristocracy and established citizenship as the prime determinant of rights and privileges. But “the corollary of the invention of the national citizen,” Brubaker notes, “is the invention of the foreigner.” The revolution also established that people who were not citizens did not get to enjoy the political rights seized by virtue of the revolution.

Once individuals were given citizenship, the concept quickly gained power in determining personal identify and national outlook.

Citizenship means many things. Research by Georgetown Government Professor Marc Morjé Howard indicates that:

Citizenship bestows upon individuals membership in a national political community. In liberal democracies, it gives them the right to vote, to run for office, and to participate freely in public activities, while also requiring the obligation of paying taxes and possibly serving in the military. In terms of the larger international community … first, the boundary of citizenship allows rich states to draw a line that separates its citizens from potential immigrants from poor countries. Second, it allows states to create internal boundaries that separate citizens from foreign residents, by associating certain rights and privileges with national citizenship.

But America is actually rather unique among liberal democracies in making citizenship and native birth necessary characteristics to obtaining the best political jobs. In other countries this isn’t such an issue.

Eamon de Valera, one of the most important political figures of Ireland, a leader in the country’s independence movement, and the third president of the Irish republic, was born in midtown Manhattan in 1882.

The Virginia-born Nancy Astor served in British Parliament for 26 years, and while some people, Winston Churchill  in particular (his father the son of a English duke, his mother from Brooklyn), disliked her very much, no one seemed to object to her presence because she was American.

Toomas Ilves, born in Stockholm and raised in Leonia, New Jersey (and a U.S. citizen), was  elected president of Estonia in 2007.

Over the years the legal concept of citizenship grew more complicated. Today the residents of Stanstead, Quebec, have national health care by virtue of their Canadian citizenship, but the residents of Derby Line, Vermont, who are in many cases literally across the street, pay much lower taxes and can’t buy alcohol legally until they’re 21. This is despite the fact that the adjacent towns are made up of the same ethnic groups and that residents work together, shop together, and intermarry. They share a public library and an opera house. But their citizenship is what counts in terms of the many material benefits and rights.

Citizenship matters for Cruz because, of course, of Article II, Section I, clause 5, of the Constitution, which states that No Person except a natural born Citizen … who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States” can become president.

But “natural born citizen” is still pretty ambiguous. Does it mean “born in the United States” or is it good enough to be simply “born to U.S. citizens”? We haven’t officially decided.

Whether or not Cruz retains his Canadian citizenship is immaterial to this. He either is or is not legally qualified to run for president. He’s had American citizenship from birth. Whether or not he keeps his (automatically granted) Canadian passport won’t make him any more qualified to be president. But he’s making a statement with his citizenship.

Cruz, in speaking to journalists, explained recently what this was all about: “Because I was a U.S. citizen at birth, because I left Calgary when I was four and have lived my entire life since then in the U.S. … I assumed that was the end of the matter.” This was about his identity. This is a matter of some concern to a politician with a definition problem. He’s been called a “traitor to his class.” As he’s also put it, “I’m something that’s not supposed to exist. A Hispanic Republican.”

It’s not just about legal rights or the ability to become president. Citizenship is also about who Cruz is, which box he fits in, who gets to claim him on the list. He’s already got that Hispanic Republican problem, why compound that by also explaining why he’s a Canadian Hispanic Republican?

It has no natural meaning. Citizenship is what someone chooses to be and how he identifies. Historically no one much worried about this sort of thing. But today it means everything for politics and identity.

Daniel Luzer
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Luzer.

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