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date: 02 December 2020

Conscription, Citizenship, and Democracylocked

  • Tony IngessonTony IngessonDepartment of Political Science, Lund University

Summary

Military service and political participation have links going back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. While bearing arms was for most of history a privilege reserved for stakeholders in the state, universal conscription later turned this notion on its head in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead of selecting stakeholders to serve as soldiers, the soldiers themselves became stakeholders as the right to vote was extended to include them in the democratic polity in several states. This quid pro quo arrangement paved the way for the extension of the franchise to large portions of the male population who had previously been excluded from voting by property qualifications. In some cases, it also resulted in limited franchise extensions for female voters.

For minorities, conscription can be a curse or a blessing, depending on their ability to leverage it as a bargaining tool for citizenship or increased status. Some, such as the Druze in Israel, have been relatively successful, while the same strategy was less fruitful for African American veterans of World War I.

While conscription has been criticized by economists, who tend to regard it as a form of taxation, for being unfair and inefficient as a recruitment tool for the armed forces, it has also been seen as a political instrument for promoting democracy, social cohesion, and as a safeguard against military coups. Many of these suggested benefits have failed to hold up to empirical scrutiny, but conscription remains a viable alternative for small states in urgent need of military manpower in times of heightened tensions, where some states have in the latter half of the 2010s reintroduced the draft after having suspended it.

The growing tensions and deteriorating security situation in some parts of the world, such as the Baltic Sea region, have once more put conscription on the agenda. Consequently, an understanding of conscription’s role in relation to citizenship and democracy is as relevant as ever.

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