Our republic is under stress. So much so, in fact, that if you’re not worried about its future, you probably haven’t been paying attention.
What makes me say this? Our public discourse has become uncivil and shrill. Corruption and unethical actions by prominent politicians headline the daily news. Too many politicians make their mark by fueling division, exploiting frustration and casting doubt on our democratic institutions — and too many Americans respond by agreeing with them.
On the whole, Americans’ regard for our political institutions and the people who run them is scraping rock bottom. By two-to-one margins, parents urge their children not to go into politics.
And who can blame them? These days, it’s far easier to enumerate the things that are wrong with our republic than what is right. It’s marked by a proliferation of special interests, an avalanche of money, disregard for facts, gridlock, partisan gerrymandering, excessive partisanship, and indifference to the common good among political leaders.
So it’s not surprising that many Americans have tuned out. They understand our republic only vaguely and participate in it less. Voting rates are depressing, and a disturbing number of young Americans reject politics in all its forms.
While political engagement — as measured by people taking to the streets — may be on the rise, that’s not necessarily a sign of good civic health. In fact, we appear to be caught in a dangerous downward cycle. Government is seen as dysfunctional and corrupt; this causes the ablest people to stay out of government and politics; and this, in turn, hobbles politics and government.
The risk in all this is that as Americans disengage, we place the entire American democratic enterprise in jeopardy. Lincoln’s burning question at Gettysburg — “Whether a nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure” — was apt then; it is disturbingly so today.
So what do we do? There are plenty of steps we could take to strengthen our democratic institutions and make government more efficient, effective, and responsive. But what we need most of all is for our citizens — that’s you and me — to appreciate this democracy we’ve inherited, and to step up to the responsibilities it asks of us.
Our republic, despite its many challenges, is at its core a monumental achievement. It is marked by strong, independent branches of government, entrusted to exercise limited and defined powers within the bounds of the Constitution. It enshrines checks and balances, separation of powers, equal individual rights and opportunity, and the rule of law.
It provides fair, free elections — mostly free from fraud and manipulation. Most remarkably of all, it is constructed to allow us to seek a more perfect union — to improve it as the nation evolves. This is its great strength.
But we can only take advantage of its strength when we act as though we’re all in this republic together — when we work cooperatively to secure a country where all people have the opportunity to enjoy the promise of America by living a life of honor, excellence…and responsibility.
Because democracy places demanding responsibilities on its citizens — to cast an informed vote, to engage in the dialogue of democracy with civility and a willingness to learn, to make discriminating judgments about politics and politicians, to work with others to strengthen the institutions of democracy and improve our part of the world.
We will disagree with one another about all kinds of issues — but also know that we need to accept and tolerate those differences, because we are far stronger when we seek to reconcile them rather than ignore or exacerbate them.
Let’s not deny it: the trends these days are worrisome. We face a bewildering array of dangers to our republic. Authoritarian rule and autocratic leadership, once unthinkable, are now true concerns. We are subject to unwanted foreign influence, prey to public and private figures who use government to pursue money and power and manipulate the rules of the game for personal gain, and at the mercy of politicians who believe that whatever it takes to win is just fine.
But if we also lose trust that we, as citizens, can turn the republic around by shouldering our responsibilities to act, that’s when we’re truly sunk.
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.