An Unprecedented Election – And the Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher

It’s fair to say that the United States has never seen an election year like this one.

We face a presidential choice between a convicted felon bent on dismantling the institutions and norms that we’ve developed over nearly 250 years, versus a sitting president whose debate performance and general age concerns have stoked calls from within his own party to step aside. In Congress, control of both houses is very much in play. And a conservative majority on the Supreme Court has taken the country into unprecedented territory and, if polls are to be believed, undercut the Court’s standing with a broad swath of the public.

Photo of the Supreme Court building under storm clouds

I suspect a lot of people will be going into the voting booth in November with a profound sense of unease about the country’s future, regardless of their political beliefs. In particular, I see a widespread sense that the US as we knew it is shifting underneath us. This isn’t all bad. If nothing else, there’s a renewed understanding that this country remains what it has always been: a work in progress that is never done re-creating and redefining itself.

Given the pace of events, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the moment-by-moment coverage. But at times like these, I find it helpful to look past the breathless coverage and focus on what I actually want for the country – to try to see beyond the individuals and campaigns involved and pay attention to what I believe in most strongly and how it’s likely to be affected by what comes after the election.

For starters, I believe in our system of representative democracy. It has allowed us to become the great nation that we are. Through the Civil War, two world wars, economic turmoil, and enormous challenges, the country we Americans created has not just survived, but improved. We live in the world’s largest and most competitive economy. We have improved the lives of countless older Americans with programs like Social Security and Medicare and we’ve boosted the lives of many younger people through access to college and to training programs. Perhaps most important, we have created a country where economic and social opportunity, while hardly as evenly distributed as they should be, remain available to the overwhelming majority of Americans. Ours is a land of opportunity because our system makes that possible.

I also believe in the institutions and norms that undergird all this. It’s easy to dismiss terms like “the rule of law” and “the separation of powers” as just so much boilerplate, but behind them lie concepts that have been crucial to our growth and strength as a country. Let’s take the separation of powers as an example. Yes, our system needs a strong presidency. But it also needs a strong Congress and an independent judiciary. We are best off as a nation when the first two consult, interact, and work together as powerful branches determined to construct effective policies that improve the lives of most Americans, and when the third ignores politics and political pressure to rule according to the law and the Constitution. This is an extremely difficult balancing act to pull off, but it’s the willingness to try that has marked our progress as a nation.

I’m also a believer in the search for consensus and common ground. If politics is ultimately about the search for a remedy, then you have to be able to get a consensus around that remedy. In a divided country with a government specifically set up to divide powers, we need to follow this process, not necessarily because we have to, but because better policy — policy that more nearly reflects the will of the American people — tends to emerge from this process.

I wish I could predict what the next few months will look like. Looking at the broad sweep of our history, I know we’ve emerged from tumultuous times to thrive anew, and I’d like to believe that will be the case this time. But whatever happens, I know that when I step inside the voting booth in November, I’ll be thinking about which candidates most closely hew to my core hopes for how this country will operate.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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