The System Works – But It Also Needs Attention

Back in mid-July, an eye-opening poll came out. It raises some serious questions about Americans’ underlying confidence in our democracy.
The poll, from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, was filled with dire findings: only about half the country thinks democracy is working at least somewhat well; a majority of US adults believe our laws and policies do a poor job representing what most Americans want; 53 percent of Americans say views of “people like you” are not represented well by the government; and the same percentage say Congress does a poor job of upholding democratic values—while just 16 percent say it’s doing a good job.

You can see why all this might be troubling. To be sure, individual respondents expressed a range of concerns, from the sense that Congress is arguing over issues that have little to do with the realities and struggles of their lives to the belief that political contentiousness is turning many Americans away from getting involved in public and community life. But it’s not a very big step from a sense that things are awry with our system to a conviction that the problem is the system—our representative democracy—itself.

Now, I don’t believe that most Americans favor authoritarianism. They want a voice in government. But they also want decent lives for themselves and their families, and if they don’t see our elected officials addressing the issues they believe matter, it’s a problem. As tempting as it might be to coast on the assumption that belief in democracy is such a bedrock value that we can take it for granted, we can’t. Democratic governments like ours have to perform. They have to show they can improve the quality of their citizens’ lives.

Over the centuries, of course, this is exactly what our system has done. Through world wars, the Civil War, economic recessions, depressions, and enormous challenges, America has not just survived, but improved. We continue to live in the world’s largest and most competitive economy, we have bettered the lives of countless older Americans with programs like Social Security and Medicare—remember, these were once just ideas that got turned into legislation and then into daily reality—and we’ve improved the lives of many younger people through access to college, training programs, and broader opportunities. Perhaps most important, we have created a country where economic and social opportunity, while still not as evenly distributed as they should be, are available to the overwhelming majority of Americans. This remains a land of opportunity because our system makes that possible.

So, while I get that these are politically divided and contentious times, I also take heart by looking back at the course of our history. We’re coming up on 250 years of practice in resolving issues that arouse great passion and affect the nature of life in the US, and only once has the system failed—with the disastrous result, of course, being the Civil War. That great national trauma ought to be a reminder that we Americans thrive best when we settle our differences through the political process: We bring our beliefs into the voting booth, genuine grassroots lobbying campaigns, organizing efforts, and other means of peacefully advancing our points of view.

One key aspect of that recent poll gave me hope as I read the results: Where people express disappointment, it’s with the system falling short of our ideals, not with those ideals themselves. We believe that Congress and other representative bodies should do just that: represent the concerns of a majority of Americans. And most Americans recognize that reaching practicable solutions usually means finding areas of common ground with political opponents—and that, win or lose, there’s always a next time.

So as we look ahead, it doesn’t hurt to look back and reflect on all the challenges we’ve overcome. It’s an impressive record. The strength of our country lies in the fact that over our history, Americans have always found a way forward by embracing the opportunities that our system offers. That’s no less true now than it ever was.

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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