By Lee H. Hamilton
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.
So it’s not surprising that many Americans have tuned out. They understand our republic only vaguely and participate in it less. 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. So what do we do? 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. Most remarkably of all, it allows 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 — 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.
Let’s not deny it: the trends these days are worrisome. 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.