Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Every presidential election year, I'm struck by a basic imbalance in media coverage. A great deal of time, space and attention go to what we can expect from the candidates - on their policy stances, their strengths and weaknesses, their frame of mind at any given moment. Given that voters are called upon to judge these politicians' fitness for the highest office in the land, this is understandable.
Yet I can't help but think that something is missing. This kind of wall-to-wall coverage sends a message that the candidates and their personal qualities are all that matter to our government, which isn't true.
There's another half of the equation: the American people. Far too little gets written or broadcast about our role in making this democracy work. We ask the candidates whether they're prepared for their responsibilities. We need to ask the same thing of the American people.
Because we have the oldest enduring republic and an ever-robust public discourse, it's easy to forget that our system needs constant tending by the people most invested in its success - Americans in general. It depends on broad participation in the political process - participation that goes well beyond simply voting. It depends on an active belief in accommodation and compromise, not the winner-take-all single-mindedness that has come to characterize political culture of late. And perhaps above all else, it depends on a widespread understanding that our system of government gives us all an opportunity to achieve what we want by following paths defined and limited by our Constitution; it does not guarantee that we'll get what we want.
Yet Americans too often have unrealistic expectations of what government can achieve. Ours is not a perfect system. It works slowly, sometimes frustratingly so. Issues that bedevil society - a failing health-care system, for example, or a poorly performing economy - might not be adequately addressed for years, as the various interests involved hammer at each other in Washington. An astoundingly diverse nation, each fragment of it with its own beliefs about what is right and wrong, must find a way of forging an agreement on appropriate policy.
This is hard work, and just because Congress and the President don't produce exactly what we want when we think it's needed does not mean the system is broken, dysfunctional or even unrepresentative.
To some extent, a more thorough civic education would be helpful here, both in school and afterward. Many Americans' knowledge of basic concepts - the need for a balance of powers at the federal level, or the crucial role compromise plays in making the system work - is weaker than it ought to be. Debate and consultation across ideological and party lines, which are how we reach common ground and sustainable solutions, are one of our strengths, not a weakness. Public tolerance for them is crucial.
A firm grounding in the fundamentals of American democracy would also build an understanding - and expectation - within the electorate that final consensus in our system can only come about after extensive deliberation and the input of many different points of view. These are what produce policy that addresses the needs of our people, not the sound bites and spin that Americans too often confuse these days for civic discourse.
One thing that strikes me often as I meet with people around the country is that as unhappy as people get with the President or Congress or the Supreme Court, they don't stand up and say, "I don't support the Constitution." There is an inbred respect for our constitutional structure. The challenge for ordinary citizens is to make it work.
This is a challenge for every generation. Our system does not function on automatic pilot. Just because it has worked in the past does not mean we will have a free and successful country in the future. To achieve this, we need a citizenry that not only participates actively, but that expects and encourages each of its members to do so. We need debate, deliberation, accommodation, a healthy system of checks and balances, thoroughgoing representation of all voices in the halls of power, and an electorate willing to hold those in power to account when they stray from these basic constitutional principles.
So, during this election season it's all well and good to inquire aggressively about how well the candidates are prepared for public office. But remember also to turn the inquiry inward and ask how well we are prepared for the obligations of citizenship.
There is no replacement in our system for accepting the responsibility that comes with being an American to help make our system work. It requires skill, patience, and above all an appreciation for the gift given us by our predecessors and a determination not to squander its legacy.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.