• Ben Koponen

Political Culture: What does it mean to be a citizen?

In the cosmopolitan bustle of everyday life, it is far too easy to forget–and often rather burdensome to remember–that we are citizens. We are, even in legal terms, beings deserving of rights and justice. However, by the same token, citizens are also endowed with obligations–or, civic duties. Those concepts broadly capture the definition of a citizen, but they are limited. They do not describe the way citizens understand, confront, or conceptualize their responsibilities. The manner in which people confront their civic duties could demonstrate how people feel about their country, politics, and the tension between collective/individual responsibility. These dichotomies boil down to an amalgam of different political cultures. Briefly, a culture is composed of the artifacts which have survived prior generations. Three students were interviewed for this article, and their perspectives will be used to ground this discussion.

So, what does it mean to be a citizen?

For Spike, a Swedish/Belgian/English third year mechanical engineering student in the U.K., it means to “be a part of a nexus of people. We can work together and help each other out.” Interestingly, this commitment to social/political action was also echoed in Joep and Anastasia. “Being a citizen means that you actively participate in social life…[it means that] you try to do something that you think is right within that context” suggests Joep, who is completing a political science degree and minor in sociology at the VU Amsterdam. However, it doesn't have to involve action. It could be as simple as “a sense of belonging to a certain culture/nation, and then also the power to express my opinion and exercise my rights” claims Anastasia, who is majoring in Philosophy and Political science–while also pursuing a minor in religious studies at the VU Amsterdam. Interestingly, citizenship—just like middle school— is about fitting in. That is, to fit into the bureaucratic guidelines administered by the state (i.e. having a passport, paying taxes, and complaining about paying those taxes). However, in a more human sense, it involves being a part of a culture with a shared history and sense of nationhood.

How do people experience the difference between fitting in politically and culturally ?

For Anastasia, who holds Russian and Croatian citizenship, the political and cultural elements are clearly divided.

“I think that belonging to a nation entails supporting and believing in the myths that hold a nation together…for me, citizenship really means making yourself known as an active participant of the community”. For her, those civic duties manifest in “everything which the individual interacts with in the public sphere. So whatever action is necessary–according to that citizen–to improve a situation is an act of engaging with your citizenship”. This extends to “talking to advisory boards in your neighborhood [to] vaguely responding to letters from your municipality”. The ability to vote is another core example.

She notes, “the current situation in Russia makes it very difficult for people who do not live [there]”. The practical issue of either traveling “to Russia to vote” or even meeting “with the embassies, and trying to organize a special kind of voting there [just] doesn’t seem like it's worth the payoff”. Her political exclusion seems to have fueled a certain type of political apathy, something other Russians may relate with. However, “with [her] Croatian passport, [she has] voted almost three times now in the parliamentary, presidential, and European elections.”. Voting “almost boosted my energy…I just felt so much more invigorated to continue fighting for what I believe in”. The realization that “hey, my vote was counted. Someone saw it, and someone counted my choice” brought her closer to Croatian politics. She bridged the distance by “realizing that we’re all a part of countries. All of these people went to university and studied politics just like me”. The ability to bridge political ravines is a central aspect of active citizenship. Even if you have the necessary documents to engage in politics, it doesn't always mean that you actually can. However, outside of the legal mechanisms, active demonstrations also represent a vital element.

“I feel I exercise my citizenship by activism,'' reflects Joep. His moment of civic awakening happened when “Recently it came out that the Dutch loan system for students is being abolished”--a goal he and the NietMijnSchuld (NotMyDebt) campaign– “have worked towards for two years”. It started as an ember, embodied in “going onto the streets, first with about seven people”, until it became a flame “building up to hundreds of people at a protest”. From this light “we saw that it had a political impact, we saw that using our citizenship towards a good cause actually made a difference for policymaking in politics”. The influence of demonstrations is also reflected in Anastasia’s account that “there are way more demonstrations [in Russia]...And that’s also starting something in me; that maybe I could [vote] in my regional districts in Russia”. However, there aren’t always–or even usually–specific events that shape our personalities and convictions.

For Spike, it was the fact that he “grew up in Belgium”. “I was very lucky to have grown up in an environment where you were exposed to so many different cultures”. This is interesting, considering that he has only recently been able to vote. He remarks that “just having the culture is probably the most important part.” To him, even “if I wouldn’t have Swedish citizenship, I would still consider myself Swedish”. We can speculate that the association with a single culture is a compensation for the three passports he holds. It demonstrates that people will—and, more likely—must develop their own value structures to clarify their world. However, another characteristic about citizenship emerges from these accounts: if civic rights aren’t heard, they will eventually shout.


Joep remarks that, in the Netherlands ``toleration is becoming a very political thing, we see it becoming a large—even an extreme—debate”. On the one hand, “progressive lefties are generally for the appreciation of every single culture”. In contrast, on the conservative right “there’s more of a hierarchy of different cultures…which also involves hatred towards LGBTQIA+ people, and other minority groups''. This puts the socio-political value of toleration — a well respected principal in Dutch politics– under the microscope. It begs the question: whose rights should be tolerated? The left seems to confidently proclaim: everybody, except those who are intolerant of toleration. In an oddly similar vein, the far/conservative right claims: everybody, except those who are too different and/or tolerate an excess of plurality. Joep observes that this has snowballed into “two different social movements''. The “leftists who are protesting against housing markets”, and right-wingers who “mostly protest COVID-19 measures.”. Both social movements have received turnouts between 3,000 and 20,000 people, reports nos.nl,nltimes.nl, and rtlnews.nl–all local newspapers. The core message here involves beliefs, actions, and rights.

The left (for the sake of argument) believes that their right to housing is infringed upon (i.e. negative freedom). In turn, hundreds protest in order to secure housing rights. Finally, the action (protest) is justified by civic justifications for action. In contrast, the right believes that COVID-19 is a restriction of their liberties (emphasis on ‘believe’). In turn, they protest in order to open the country (or to debunk The Conspiracy of COVID-19). Finally, these actions are explained and protected by the civic right to protest. Anastasia observed similar patterns of resistance in Russia, following the parliamentary elections in 2021.

She reflects that there was definitely a focus on “just voting for “Not Putin's Party”, United Russia. The goal was for his party to “get less seats” which he did, “but not little enough, he’s still in power”. This silent whisper of change has become more audible as “there [are] way more demonstrations and protests about it.”( In fact, Russians were about four times as likely to protest in 2018, 2019, and 2020– with a large protest of 3,000 people on January 25th,2021–than in 2014 (statista)).

The protests/social movements in Russia and the Netherlands should not be equivocated. However, the responses of Russian and Dutch citizens to encroachments–and/or perceptions of encroachments—upon their rights answers a part of the question of what our citizenship is for: to protect us when we believe that the individuals in government can’t.

The Importance of Citizenship

The question of what it means to be a citizen doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. It requires the burdensome efforts of self reflection and contextual understanding. However, in an odd manner, it can help us to justify and understand our political existence. This process is deeper than (1) choosing a party, and even (2) deciphering why we vote for a party. Instead, it forces us to ask why the reasons we use to argue our point matter. Everybody is always trying to do something, whether we know it or not. In turn, it is imperative that we ask ourselves: what we are doing, and why we are doing that. The answers from those questions will inform our political decisions. Thus, if we elect representatives who more-or-less conform to those answers, the question of what is happening in the Political World may be easier to comprehend.

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