The Impossibility of Citizenship

19 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2004

See all articles by Peter J. Spiro

Peter J. Spiro

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law


This essay reviews T. Alexander Aleinikoff's Semblances of Sovereignty: The Constitution, the State, and American Citizenship (Harvard University Press, 2002). The book considers the constitutional marginalization of Native Americans, aliens, and residents of Puerto Rico and other unincorporated territories. In Aleinikoff's view, citizenship supplies both the explanation for and the answer to the subordination of these communities. Citizenship has been a powerfully equalizing force in the American constitutional tradition for those within the circle. Insofar as rights have been made contingent on citizenship status, however, those outside are left without constitutional armor. Aleinikoff suggests a reconception of citizenship, extending core constitutional status to those for whom citizenship is not a constitutional entitlement (namely, Native Americans and territorial residents) as well as to some who are not citizens at all (permanent resident aliens). With citizenship as a baseline, the argument is a powerful one. But one might at a more fundamental level question the continuing utility of that baseline and of citizenship as an institution. An emerging body of postnational scholarship is challenging citizenship and the nation-state as delimitations of human community, posing instead diasporas, social movements, and other nonstate groupings as competing locations of identity and governance. Aleinikoff brackets the postnational assault; he is seeking to transform citizenship, not transcend it. In this respect, the analysis presents more of an exercise in recentering citizenship than - as claimed - one of decentering it. But the postnational challenge is unavoidably implicated in any attempt to deploy citizenship as an institutional vehicle. Even as an expansive and benign quantity, Aleinikoff's vision of citizenship may suffer the same problems as its exclusionary predecessors: however the circle is drawn, many are left out, including many with deep attachments to the national community. To the extent, on the other hand, that the circle is drawn ever more widely, the tie that citizenship is understood to represent grows ever thinner. This dynamic would seem to present an inescapable dilemma for the institution of liberal citizenship, and perhaps for liberalism itself.

Keywords: citizenship, constitutional law, aliens, territories, Native Americans, postnational, liberalism

Suggested Citation

Spiro, Peter J., The Impossibility of Citizenship. Michigan Law Review, Vol. 101, pp. 1492-1511. Available at SSRN:

Peter J. Spiro (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

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