Center Spotlight | How 19th Century Liberalism Informs Ideas of Citizenship Today

How does a person qualify for citizenship? How do we determine those qualifications? We talked with the SMU Political Science Department’s newest professor, Gianna Englert, about her research and how it applies to questions being asked about citizenship today.

Tell us about your research. What are you working on?

Dr. Gianna Englert

My research is in political theories, specifically history of political thought, which means I look mostly at the past for insights that can inform political questions in the present. Specifically my work is on the 19th century and the history of liberalism in the 19th century. How do liberals deal with the question of political inclusion or citizenship, deciding who’s in, who’s out and why? We sometimes think of a liberal philosophy as something that’s really universal. Human beings are created equal. Stop. But in the real world we have to deal with borders, we have to deal with nations. How does a philosophy that seems to be universal deal with this question of citizens who have to have some kind of standard for being in or out.

My work looks at liberalism in the 19th century in France and England, how they navigate these questions of citizenship; this idea that one had to be capable in order to exercise political rights, and obviously some concerns are being raised again. What kind of immigrants do we want to welcome into our borders? Do they have to have some level of capability? Whether it be education, whether it be the ability to earn an income. Do they have to be parts of families? Does that make them more stable? And these were exactly the kinds of questions that people were initially raising in the 19th century. So my work looks at these arguments and tries to figure out is there something valuable in them, can we learn from them, are they just exclusive, can they actually be more inclusive, can they inform questions about citizenship?

How could the idea of capacity for citizenship be more inclusive?

That’s a good question. When looking at the 19th century, I look at the different ways they used this language. At first it was very exclusive. You had to own a certain amount of property to be considered a citizen, and for a lot of people now, and especially then, that was insurmountable. How do I get property if I don’t originally have property? When capacity was tied to property it was very exclusive. It was meant to keep people out.

One of my arguments is that this language of capacity is actually tied to the way society is supposed to look. When you’re thinking about who should we allow to be political citizens, you’re supposed to be looking at what does the underlying society actually look like.  What’s the economic condition, what kinds of social classes are people in, and you were supposed to take your cue on who the citizen would be based on what the society looks like.  So if the society is really diverse, in some ways your citizenry is supposed to mirror that.

I look at how in the 19th century they used the idea of politics matching society to grow that category of citizenship. Are there resources within this idea of capacity that can allow us to look at different meanings of what it might mean to be capable? So rather than just owning property, is it the case that somebody who operates a small business that’s useful in the community is someone who’s capable? Even if that person, often in the United States, isn’t a legal citizen? We have people here who are here on temporary visas or green cards that are often important parts of the community. And we think of them instinctively as being citizens, we think of them of being members in this community with us, so is there a way that thinking about people of the community can help us expand that idea of citizenship?

What strikes you the most about your findings?

One interesting thing to me is how this language of capacity keeps coming up no matter where you are; that’s kind of the common thread. We’re seeing it again and we’re kind of alarmed by it and given what I research I say that people have been bringing this up for a long time — whether we’re concerned about preserving something that’s uniquely ours, or whether because we’re afraid of what it might look like if citizenship looks more diverse. While I certainly acknowledge differences in policies, differences in time, certainly difference in what would it mean to be a member of a community, this idea about being a capable citizen recurs. This is something common.

President Trump says he is working on an executive order to end birthright citizenship. You talked about people moving to the U.S., but what about people born here? Is that part of this question?

I think it can be. One of the standards for capacity was that your citizenship had to be proven. And that’s exactly what these arguments against birthright citizenship are now. Your citizenship has to be proven, it’s not enough if you’re born here. But another thing to ask is, when we’re born in a place and we’re raised in a place, don’t we sort of become embedded in that place? You become a part of this place even unknowingly. And so that’s one good illustration of how this capacity can point in these two directions. So it could be really exclusive in that it could make us prove something. But it also can be really inclusive in making us think about what does it actually mean to be part of a community. Even if a child of unauthorized immigrants is born here, the idea that that child was raised in schools, nurtured in schools, attended the same things that legal citizens did, shouldn’t that have some bearing on whether we extend citizenship to that person?

It’s not surprising to me that we continue to use these kinds of exclusions, even in a place where things look really settled. If you’d asked people maybe six years ago, “what are the requirements for citizenship?” They would have said, “Oh we understand the 14th amendment, we understand citizenship policies,” but now look. Everything is open again, and that’s not surprising to me.