There’s no shortage of threats to our democracy. Foreign meddling in elections, the vulnerability of state voting systems to hacking, political leaders’ growing fondness for making policy in secret – all of these pose a real challenge to our system’s viability.
As worrisome as these are, there’s one problem that may be the greatest threat of all: Americans’ loss of faith in politics and democratic institutions. This has been building for decades, dating back to the Vietnam War and Watergate.
The truth is, in the face of our teeming, complicated, diverse society, the country’s political institutions have performed inadequately. But if we’re not just to throw in the towel and declare representative democracy a noble failure, then we have to restore Americans’ faith in the processes of government. To do this, we have to pursue a range of reforms and goals, some of which will require years of concerted effort to achieve.
Broad-based economic growth, for instance, will be crucial. Economic growth that spreads its benefits to the broad mass of people solves a lot of problems and restores confidence in government.
Beyond that, we must restore our ability to use the time-honored techniques of democracy: civility, negotiation, compromise, transparency, respect for minority views and accountability. These are not just values – they are tools that bring representative democracy to life. They ensure that diverse voices are included in policymaking and help citizens feel they have a stake in governance.
Above all, we must purge the polarization and scorched earth approach to politics and legislating that has degraded and hamstrung our system.
Restoring faith in our system will take a sustained effort by our political leaders and our citizens, but I’m not saying it all needs to be tackled at once. What I am saying is that until Americans believe that our political leaders recognize the erosion of faith in our political institutions and are taking meaningful steps to address it, our distress will only grow.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.