Every so often, I jot down a list of the things that discourage me about our country. There’s the widespread disregard for our core values of tolerance and mutual respect, for instance. Our declining national optimism. Our relaxed attitude toward fixing our election machinery, overseeing financial institutions, and making sure that our key democratic institutions and processes are working effectively. There’s wage stagnation, income inequality, a high poverty rate, failing infrastructure, inadequate health-care coverage, a dysfunctional Congress…. You get the idea.
This is not really a list of failings. It’s a to-do list. And it pretty much begs the question, if we’re not to throw up our hands and give in, how do we make progress on it? Well, I’ll tell you: politics.
I suppose most Americans will disagree. How can we depend on people — politicians — whom many hold in utter disregard? And what can we expect from political institutions like legislatures, Congress, the bureaucracy, the political parties, and a rickety electoral system that are widely viewed with suspicion?
The answer, I think, has to be that we should do all we can to encourage and support them to fix these problems, because they’re all we’ve got.
American politics can be an inefficient, noisy, messy ride. But be careful before you condemn it and its practitioners, because alternatives like a chaotic anarchy or the brutal efficiency of a dictatorship are far worse.
In other words, if we’re going to attack the problems that concern us, we need politics: otherwise, our government would grind to a halt. We would be without a means of remedying our collective problems. The institutions of politics — the rule of law, elections, city councils, legislatures, Congress — are the way we make operational a government of, by, and for the people. They are how we work together.
At its heart, politics is about searching for a remedy to a problem, and building support behind that remedy. It’s the way we try to keep citizens satisfied and strive to meet their hopes, demands and dreams. At its best, politics and political involvement are how we give citizens a feeling of community and an understanding that we’re all in this together.
It’s our vehicle for expressing shared values and for reconciling the tensions, diversity and differences among us that are bound to arise as we tackle these enormously difficult challenges.
This is not to say that our system is even close to perfect. The list of things we need to fix — from the influence of money on elections and political decision-making to an elections machinery that is crying out for attention and reform — is long. But we need to strike a balance.
As a citizen you have to be critical of your system and ask yourself how to improve it and support reforms that would make it better. Yet I worry that our disdain for politicians and the howling criticism aimed at our democratic institutions in recent years has so undermined confidence in the system that people have lost their trust in their fellow citizens, their elected representatives, and their institutions — in other words, in the very people, organizations, and core values that can get us out of this mess.
If you ask people what they most cherish about our political system, most will say it’s the idea of opportunity. For all its fits and starts, its horse-trading and negotiating and raw give and take, politics is also how we try to provide equal rights, civil liberties, and a fair shot at opportunity for all. Sure, we fall short of the ideal. But in a representative democracy, it’s the mechanism we possess to try to create a more perfect union.
The plain truth is, it doesn’t do much good just to talk about the ideals or shared values of America. You also have to try to realize them on the ground, to pull them out of the complicated — and often self-contradictory — mass of popular longings and opinions and translate them into policy and law. For better or worse, politics is how we do this.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.