Representative democracy is based on a simple premise. It’s that ordinary citizens can make satisfactory judgments on complex public policy and political issues — or at least grasp them well enough to decide who should be dealing with them.
But the significance of that premise isn’t simple at all. It means that our country’s future depends on the quality of democratic participation by its citizens. Collectively, we have to make discriminating judgments about politicians, policies and issues. Not just once, but repeatedly and consistently. Moreover, when it comes to improving our own corner of the world, it means there’s no one to depend upon but ourselves.
So, in an era when our democracy appears to be under great stress, what must we do to keep it healthy? Because there are certainly alternatives out there, from out-and-out authoritarianism to the Chinese and Russian models to just plain anarchy. Here are some steps I think we need to take.
First, we have to protect our elections. It’s clear that malign actors want to hack them or at least use every means they can to influence them. In the past we tended to assume that our elections were free, fair and accurate, but we can’t take that for granted any more. This also means ensuring the independence of the judicial branch, which is critical to protecting the integrity of elections against the encroachment of authoritarian-minded leaders and manipulative politicians. We also must protect the media and sources of fair, unbiased information that citizens require when making their judgments about politicians and their policies.
Second, we need to work on expanding our democracy in appropriate ways and on fighting off efforts to restrict the vote. There are all sorts of tools states and localities can use to make voting easier and more convenient; many of these — voting hours, for instance, or the location of polling places — can also be used to make voting more difficult. Plenty of politicians want to handicap or exclude voters they don’t like and this sort of manipulation of our system is as big a threat to its integrity as outsiders’ attempts to hack it.
Third, keeping money’s role in elections within bounds is crucial. The issue is less top-of-mind than it used to be, perhaps because we’ve become inured to record amounts being spent each election cycle. Money will always have a place in elections, but we need to find ways to keep it from disproportionately affecting voting outcomes and impeding those who don’t have the same access to funds as well-heeled candidates and causes.
This is where organizations that urge their members to turn out to vote come in. They have an important role to play, both in boosting turnout and in building networks focused on democratic participation. They’re all “special interests”, of course, with their own agendas, but that’s what it means to live in a pluralistic society. The more different groups are active, the more diversity you get in office and the better the representation you get for the entire population.
Individual participation also matters, which is why civic education is vital. I don’t think we talk about the achievements of representative democracy enough, or celebrate its heritage or remind ourselves not to become complacent about what it takes to sustain it. In essence, I think we need always to be mindful about how we teach and encourage people to participate — through efforts to educate and register voters, through citizen-led advocacy, through neighbors getting together to change the speed limit on their road or fight groundwater contamination… It all matters. And, of course, we need a robust and independent media, using every available platform, that pushes the idea of democracy and promotes free speech, public dialogue, voting and all the rest of it.
When Lincoln wondered at Gettysburg whether a “nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”, it wasn’t just a rhetorical question. It’s an undecided one, and each generation has to answer it. We are being tested to an unusual degree today, and just because we’ve come through the challenges of days past doesn’t mean we’re destined to now. We need to pay attention and do our part to keep our democracy healthy.
— 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.