The Bill of Obligations
The Ten Habits of Good Citizens
A New York Times Bestseller
A provocative guide to how we must reenvision citizenship if American democracy is to survive
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.
American democracy is gravely threatened by political polarization, according to this disappointing treatise by Council on Foreign Relations president Haass (The World). At the root of the problem is a political culture that "concerns itself only with protecting and advancing individual rights"; his solution is the fostering of a "culture of obligation" focused on what citizens owe each other and their government. After sketching the role that "inequality of opportunity" and other factors have played in increasing political partisanship, Haass outlines 10 countermeasures, calling on citizens and lawmakers to "Be Informed," "Value Norms," "Remain Civil," and "Stay Open to Compromise." The entries include positive and negative examples (good: Al Gore accepting the 2000 election results; bad: Nancy Pelosi tearing up Donald Trump's State of the Union speech), brief history lessons, and earnest discourses on the value of democracy. At times, Haass's statements are so banal as to be nearly pointless ("There are... significant problems with resorting to physical violence in pursuit of political goals"). More frustratingly, he refuses to fully acknowledge the asymmetrical nature of the problem he's rightly concerned about, suggesting at one point that it's "debatable" whether Republicans would have supported Obamacare had Democrats been more willing to compromise, but making no mention of the Tea Party. This is more of a deflection than a reckoning.
Blah blah blah, not the insightful or informative book I was hoping.