You know these words, but how often do you stop to think about them? “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…”
They belong, of course, to the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. That remarkable document is not just the blueprint for our political system. Its Preamble is also a profoundly aspirational call to arms. Because when you read it, it’s hard not to ask yourself how we’re doing — at establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, securing the blessings of liberty and, in sum, creating a more perfect union.
It’s especially hard to avoid asking this question now, when the warnings of democracy in retreat are all around us. For many, the creeping authoritarianism that has taken hold in any number of countries — Russia, China, Bolivia, Turkey, the Philippines and Hungary, among others — seems alarmingly on the ascendant.
You can also look around and find developments that make you wonder whether the world’s democracies have much cause for complacency. Worrisome environmental trends, population growth, climate change, the ills that go along with rising consumption — like mountains of trash and depletion of natural resources — all suggest a world unable to rein in its appetites.
Yet it’s undeniable that we’ve come a long way in this country and in other democracies; expanding women’s rights and the rights of minorities, ending child labor, banning nuclear testing, improving literacy, building strong economies. The world’s most vibrant economies and most nimble military forces remain mostly in the hands of democratic nations: The U.S., France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan and Australia.
I don’t believe that people around the world favor authoritarianism. They prefer a voice in government. But most of all, they want decent lives for themselves and their children. They are not so wedded to a democratic system that if they see no improvement in their lives, they’ll reject authoritarianism. So democratic governments have to perform. They have to meet the expectations of their people and improve the quality of their citizens’ lives.
In the U.S., many Americans, worried about the direction of their country, wonder whether it is making progress toward the ideals of the Preamble. We seem to advance, fall back and then move forward again, all in incremental steps.
What do we mean when we talk about “a more perfect Union”? I suppose we think of material progress. But more fundamentally, I hope, we think about the expansion of human freedom and progress toward the goals set out simply and eloquently in the Preamble. There’s a sense that we’re all in this American experience together: It brings us together and connects us with our past, present and future.
The American experiment in representative democracy is always a work in progress. The results are always in doubt. Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg — “whether a nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure” — will probably resonate for as long as we’re a nation.
We face immense systemic problems at the moment: Racial discrimination, wage stagnation, staggering income inequality, political polarization, the pernicious effects of too much money washing around in the system and the degradation of civil discourse. It is not a given that we’ll be able to resolve them and we always have to be alert to the fact that our freedoms and rights can be eroded. Which means that to prevent this erosion we have to step up to the task of responsible citizenship.
This is a challenge for every generation. We’ve stepped up to it in the past, through world wars, the Civil War, economic recessions and depressions. As Americans we believe in a set of democratic ideals, basic rights, fundamental freedoms and the notion that all people are created equal and all are entitled to dignity. These are ideas that give us cohesiveness and identify us.
But we cannot take our ability to deliver on them for granted. Without a renewal of energy and commitment to the democratic values of the Constitution, without acting on the call issued by the Preamble, we could lose them.
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.