There are a lot of dire predictions about our representative democracy out there, what with complaints about a rigged political system and commentators worrying about the imminent failure of the American experiment.
I don’t agree with these predictions of calamity. Our representative democracy is not on the verge of collapse. But I do see stresses and tensions that should concern anyone who cares about our system of self-government.
The mere fact that this nation is filled with so many citizens who have lost confidence in key institutions is worrisome. The Gallup organization’s ongoing polling has found a pervasive drop in public regard for the institutions that undergird American life.
The reasons stem in part from a declining willingness among the people who inhabit those institutions to observe the norms of behavior that evoke public confidence. This is notable especially on Capitol Hill and in political life, where the parties seem to have abandoned fair play and use institutions to maximize partisan advantage.
Politicians attack opposing politicians’ patriotism, accuse them of criminal activity, question the fairness of the election process itself — with virtually no evidence — and seek to undermine their effectiveness in office. Small wonder that the public questions elected officials’ legitimacy.
Too many politicians seem fine with dysfunction. They appear more interested in holding power than in using it to solve problems. They reject the norms of behavior in a civil society. They sidestep accountability and transparency.
So what might be done to restore public faith in the system’s fairness, justness and decency?
Paul Light of New York University recently proposed a list of fixes that would enjoy support among ordinary Americans in both parties: reducing the role of money in elections, boosting ethical constraints on elected officials, reducing waste and inefficiency, and ensuring that civil servants and political appointees are qualified and competent.
Americans don’t expect miracles. They just want the basic features of government to work.
But making this happen is up to us. Politicians may be directly responsible for the problems above, but you and I as voters allow them to get away with it. The first words of the Constitution read, “We the People,” not “We the Government.” It’s up to us to strive for a more perfect union, and to be vigilant about these adverse tendencies that threaten to undermine our representative democracy.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.