Lee Hamilton: Citizen involvement is key to nation’s success

It’s so easy in a presidential election year to forget that our system is not about a single person. This year especially, when the dynamics of the presidential contest have dominated news coverage, the crucial role that citizens play – apart from serving as voters in the presidential drama – isn’t even an afterthought.

Yet effective citizenship is the base on which our representative democracy rests. Our vitality as a country depends on the involvement of millions of people in their neighborhoods and communities.

So just what constitutes effective citizenship?

First, a confident belief that change is possible – that the country can make progress over time through the efforts of ordinary people and political leaders. President Obama noted in his Howard University commencement speech last spring that by almost every measure, the country has moved forward over the last three decades. The poverty rate is down, as are the rates for crime and for teenage pregnancy. More Americans are getting college degrees; more women are working and earning more money; many cities are far healthier than they were in the 1980s.

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The people who helped make this happen understood that progress was possible, and that progress required their efforts. Those who were most effective had an impact because they had the skills to make a difference.

I’m talking about the fundamental ability we should all have as citizens to solve problems in a representative democracy that’s filled with people who have different beliefs, perspectives and experiences. This means knowing how to work together, being able to find common ground.

I use the word “skills,” but in the end, good citizenship is as much about temperament as it is about ability. Mutual respect, tolerance, empathy, civility, humility, honesty, resolve – these are the virtues that our nation depends on in its citizens, not because they’re nice to see, but because in a vibrant and diverse democracy they’re crucial for making progress.

So is a willingness to step up to challenges. The people who make a difference in our system are the ones who not only identify a problem, but dive in to fix it.

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The final quality that makes for effective citizenship is a tough one. For the most part, we’re not going to solve our challenges in a single generation. So we have to educate our children and those who come after us in the same skill sets I’ve been talking about.

All of us are responsible for the future of our neighborhoods and our nation. Unless we all shoulder the obligation to learn the skills we need to shepherd it into the future, and then teach those skills to others, our country and our system will struggle.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.