The Good American: An Exploration of American Understandings of Citizenship

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Pankiewicz, Nicole, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Sanders, Lynn, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

What do Americans think citizenship means, and what are the consequences of Americans’ understandings of citizenship? In this dissertation I argue that citizenship is much more than just a binary, legal category. I investigate how support for rights-restricting policies is shaped by underlying structures regarding Americans’ notions of “good” citizenship. I conduct thirteen original surveys and survey experiments to show that there are three important dimensions of citizenship that drive Americans’ evaluations of their fellow citizens: financial self-sufficiency, respectfulness, and paying taxes. I show that respondents are willing to assign good and bad evaluations of citizens based solely on a brief description of a citizen according to one of these three dimensions. This evaluation acts as an intervening variable that corresponds with respondent’s willingness to restrict specific constitutional rights: voting, running for office, criticizing the government, practicing her religion, and buying a gun. Although each of these rights is protected by the United States Constitution and therefore should not be restricted for any citizen, my research demonstrates that Americans are willing to restrict the rights of their fellow citizens based on how financially self-sufficient or respectful they are, or whether they pay the full amount of taxes they owe. My research builds on previous literature on citizenship by demonstrating that support for rights restrictions is based, in part, on aspects of citizenship that have nothing to do with legal citizenship but are instead based on deeply held but often unspoken standards. I show that citizens who do not live up to these standards are evaluated more negatively and are subject to support for restrictions of their constitutional rights.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
citizenship, rights, good citizenship, financial self-sufficiency, respectfulness, taxes
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