These are very unhappy times in Washington. Relations between the executive and legislative branches are not just sour, but corrosive. 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.
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. They recognize there are differences of opinion and that they have to be sorted through. 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 specific 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.
We often think of representative government as a process in which elected officials educate constituents, but the reverse is more often true. Americans 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.
This is why I have an underlying confidence in representative government. Americans are pragmatic. They recognize the complexity of the challenges we face; they understand there are no simple answers to complex problems; they do not expect to get everything they want. My confidence in the system is built on citizens exercising their right to make this a stronger, fairer country.
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.