The threats to our treasured democracy

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.

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. And Congress has failed repeatedly to overcome its divisions and move the ball forward.

Second, 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.

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 is a serious problem for our government and for the democratic system it embodies. Restoring public confidence will take hard, sustained work; 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. House districts have been gerrymandered; our voting system is fragile and in disrepair, with a patchwork of procedures, obsolete machinery, and legislative attempts to limit access to the franchise in the name of “ballot security.”

Fifth, our system is awash in money, which is spent to influence elections and gain favorable results. 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. 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, 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.

San Marcos Daily Record

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