These are very unhappy times in Washington. Relations between the executive and legislative branches are not just sour, but corrosive. The Republican-led Senate has declared it will simply ignore a presidential nomination to the Supreme Court. Both houses have announced that they will flout a tradition going back to the 1970s, and refuse to hold a hearing for the President’s budget director to present the White House’s federal budget proposal. Partisan paralysis and game-playing on Capitol Hill have become a hallmark of these times, as has the evident distaste our nation’s leaders feel for one another.
It would be understandable to give in to despair, and a lot of Americans have done so. I have not, and for a simple reason: in our system there is always hope. Why? Because our representative democracy rests finally not on what politicians in Washington or in our state capitals do, but on what our citizens do.
The bedrock assumption of representative government is that Americans will make discriminating judgments about politicians and policies, and shoulder their responsibility as citizens to improve their corner of the world. The remarkable thing is, they often do. Over a long career in politics, I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. At some gathering, people will complain about the schools or the roads or the behavior of a public official or an act of government that galls them. Then, after talking it over, they decide to act. They do something about it.
Even better, the less-than-admirable stumbling blocks that we’ve come to identify with politics — confrontation, obstructionism, divisiveness — are rarely present. Public dialogues may get heated, but they don’t often descend to the level of bitterness and obstinacy we see these days in Washington.
More than anything else, what you see when ordinary Americans decide to get involved in a public issue is their common sense and good judgment, their fundamental decency, and their remarkable sense of fairness. Over and over, as I watch citizens at work trying to fix their communities in ways big and small, I’ve found myself wishing that members of Congress and other officials could take a ringside seat. The people involved almost always want to see that even people they don’t agree with have a chance to say their piece. They recognize there are differences of opinion and that they have to be sorted through. If you ask them to describe what result they want, they will always use the word, “Fair.” They make decisions by and large based on hope, not fear or despair.
The sense that comes through when you watch Americans at work on public issues is their overwhelming desire to improve their community. Often this is reflected in concrete projects — a new bridge, a better school, a badly needed sewer system. But you can also see it in many people’s cry for candidates who will set narrow interests and excessive partisanship aside, and work to improve the quality of life for all Americans.
While ordinary citizens may not know all there is to know about a given public policy issue, I was constantly impressed while in office at how much I learned from my constituents. We often think of representative government as a process in which the elected official educates constituents, but the reverse is usually even more the case. Americans may think that politics is filled with messiness and noise, but at the end of the day they understand the need for deal-making, compromise, and negotiation — and that to achieve change, they have to work through the system we have, which means educating and pushing political leaders. As a constituent put it to me, “What’s the alternative?”
This is why I have an underlying confidence in representative government. Americans are pragmatic. They recognize the complexity of the challenges we face, understand there are no simple answers to complex problems, and do not expect to get everything they want. They see that what unites us — a common desire to improve our communities and create better opportunities for families and individuals — is stronger than what divides us. My confidence in the system is built on citizens exercising their right to make this a stronger, fairer country.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University 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.