What Citizenship Means

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Students from Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C., attend a city council meeting to try to get a new bus shelter built outside their school.

In democratic societies, citizens have both rights and duties. One important duty is to participate in the political system. Out of this comes a fundamental right. Citizens have the right to speak freely. They can help shape their own government.

Rights of Citizens

The primary right of citizenship in a democracy is the right to vote. By voting, citizens decide who will represent them in local, state, and national governments. Citizens support candidates who share their views. If the candidates win, those views will be taken into account in making policy. In most democratic countries, including the United States, citizens also have the right to seek public office themselves.

In America, the Constitution guarantees basic civil rights. These include freedom of speech and religion. But there are other rights. Americans can travel freely. They can own property. They may also have the right to certain government benefits. For example, if a citizen is unemployed, he or she may be eligible to collect unemployment payments.

Responsibilities of Citizens

Citizens in a democracy must obey the law. They must pay taxes. Money from taxes pays for government services. These services range from local schools to national defense.

Citizens may be obliged to serve on juries. If chosen for a jury, a person must attend the sessions of a trial. The jurors decide the trial's outcome.

Males may be required to serve in the military. The United States has a volunteer army. Both men and women can enlist. But men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register for the draft. A draft is compulsory (required) recruitment into the armed forces. In case of war, a draft would provide additional manpower for the military.

In a democracy it is important for citizens to stay informed. They can read newspapers or watch news on television. They can follow political Web sites. Many citizens attend local government meetings. They can voice their opinions at public hearings.

Citizens often contact government officials to express their views. Letters, e-mails, and phone calls can influence how an elected official votes on a certain matter. Many people also volunteer their services to their community. They join the volunteer fire department. They serve on their local school board.

Citizenship in a Non-Democratic Society

In other societies, such as a dictatorship, citizens do not have the same rights. They may not be allowed to run for public office. The government controls information given to the press.

These societies typically place more emphasis on the duties of citizens rather than on their rights. The people may nevertheless show great loyalty to the state. But this loyalty is not based on political participation.


A citizen's most fundamental loyalty is to his or her country. In a totalitarian society the state demands total loyalty. This can cause conflict for anyone who feels loyalty to another group.

But in a democracy, people's loyalty to country can coexist with their loyalty to family, religion, or political organization. A democratic society is not based on force. It is based on the cooperation of many different groups.

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