With so much turmoil in Washington and around the country these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the crises of the moment. These are, indeed, worth our attention — but so are longer-running developments that threaten the health of our representative democracy. I want to lay them out in one place, so that the most serious problems confronting our system don’t slip from our attention.
First, it has become very hard to make our system work. Our country is so large, so complex — and, at the moment, so polarized and divided — that it’s tough to make progress on the challenges that beset us.
In more ways than not, Congress reflects the country that elected its members; all the contrary sentiments and manifold cross-currents that characterize our communities come to rest on Capitol Hill. Ideally, that is where they should be reconciled — where discerning key facts, negotiating, and consensus-building lead to a common way forward. Congress has failed us repeatedly in this regard, but we need at least to recognize the magnitude of its challenge.
Still, this does not excuse what I consider to be Congress’s chief failing: in the face of difficult problems, it has become timid. Its members don’t like to make hard choices. So they don’t come close to living up to their responsibility to be a co-equal branch with the presidency.
They may criticize the President, but they also defer to him to set the agenda and to make policy. From national security and foreign affairs to the nation’s mounting debt to entitlement reform to the long-term economic dislocation that has led so many Americans to feel forgotten, Congress has had little impact.
Which is why it’s not surprising that we face a third long-term crisis: people have lost confidence in the institutions of government. This has been building for at least two generations, from the war in Vietnam and the turmoil it engendered back home, through Watergate, Iran-Contra, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the inability of Congress and presidents of both parties to enact comprehensive budgets and significant domestic reforms.
Yet no matter how understandable this lack of trust might be, it is a serious problem for our government and for the democratic system it embodies. Restoring public confidence will take hard, sustained work, starting with high standards of conduct at all levels. Once public confidence is lost, it can’t be regained through rhetoric, only through exemplary performance.
But this won’t happen unless we address the fourth challenge: our elections system needs thoroughgoing reform. At pretty much every level, it’s throwing democracy off-kilter. House districts have been gerrymandered to create so many safe seats that many members need only be responsive to their base. Our voting system is fragile and in disrepair, with its patchwork of procedures, obsolete machinery, and legislative attempts to limit access to the franchise in the name of “ballot security.”
We need to ensure the fairness, integrity and efficiency of our voting infrastructure and procedures — or risk undermining one of the cornerstones of our democracy.
Which is also threatened by our fifth challenge: the powerful and pervasive influence of money on the political process. Our system is awash in money, which is spent to influence elections and gain favorable results. Many Americans feel money is what really runs Washington — as opposed to the ideas and principles we were taught in civics class.
Despite efforts at reform, the money problem is worse than ever — too many Americans feel they’ve become an afterthought in the political process.
Yet if they have, it’s not just money that’s to blame. My final concern is that too many of us have become disengaged from and indifferent to the political process. That may be changing at this particular moment, but as a historical trend, it’s unarguable. As citizens, we have to learn how to solve problems in a representative democracy. We have to learn to work with people who hold different views, forge common ground with them, and hold our representatives to account — not alone for their political views, but for their ability to get things done.
To make representative democracy work, we, as citizens, have to up our game, too.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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.