You no doubt remember the old line attributed to Ben Franklin when he was asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created: “A republic, if you can keep it!” Well, I’ve noticed an interesting thing in recent years: it’s got bi-partisan appeal.
Last fall, for instance, within a few weeks of each other House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used it when she announced the impeachment inquiry and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first Court appointee, published a book using the line as its title. This is not just an ironic coincidence.
At a time when Americans are as polarized as I’ve ever seen them, and when a lot of people believe our system of representative democracy is under existential stress, there is still broad (though not universal) agreement on the answer to the most basic question of all: Do we want to keep it? We may not be able to agree on values, cultural issues, national security, or the role of government. We may not trust people who disagree with us ideologically, or find it easy to carry on reasoned, civil political discourse. But we agree that we have to search for answers to our challenges, and that the foundations of our system matter: co-equal branches of government, a competent executive branch, an effective Congress, a robust judicial system, and respect for the rule of law.
The problem is, it’s often hard to see that common ground. The world we live in is filled with forces that pull us apart — class, religion, ethnicity, ideology, and perhaps above all, inequality of economic opportunity. Worse, our public dialogue emphasizes these differences, discourages citizens from listening to one another, and dismisses those who want to come together, build consensus, understand the facts, and arrive at a common vision for what to do about them. In other words, the debate we have discourages the very process we need if we’re to change direction.
Our challenge, then, is how to get ourselves focused on good government in a time of multiplying distractions. How do we seek the facts, search for common ground, and take advantage of the virtues of our system, in particular its openness to change and reform, to improve it?
I’ll reach here for something you hear football coaches say a lot when their teams are in trouble: It’s time for us to get back to practicing the fundamentals. In fact, I’ll go even further. We know that our system of representative democracy can work just fine. It’s done so in the past, building on this nation’s strengths, allowing us to manage our divisions and disagreements and changing social values, and creating a nation that was, for a long time, an example and a beacon to downtrodden people across the globe. So we have to up our game, all of us, and make it work again.
To do this we need to value the basics that got us here: openness, accountability, commitment, discipline, and above all a sense that each of us — whether a Cabinet secretary or a judge or a member of Congress or a state legislator or a concerned community member — is committed to making our corner of the world work as best it can. Some of us will have the opportunity to attack big problems; most of us will not. But if we take inspiration from the history and strength of our key institutions, from Congress to our local school boards, and determine to build them up rather than tear them down, we can make a difference. Just as important, we need to choose our leaders wisely, electing men and women who echo our determination to improve on what we’ve spent centuries building.
I often hear people express how turned off and disgusted they are by our current circumstances. While I share their frustration, I don’t in the least share their disdain. Democracy may be under attack for its imperfections, and there’s no question that our system needs reforms. But let’s not let that blind us to what it’s brought us and the opportunities it offers all of us.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.