All of us need to help revitalize our democracy


Amid all the troubles occupying our attention, one of the more worrisome is also one of the least visible. It is the loss of public faith in the effectiveness of our representative democracy.

Concern over our system as a whole is palpable: that it has trouble responding to the country’s needs, is resistant to reform as society evolves and continues to perpetuate inequality and social immobility.

Americans increasingly divide themselves into different, often warring, political and cultural camps. Some politicians, including the President, are bent on stoking division. Many play to their parties’ bases. And some seek to suppress the vote, narrowing public support for government.

The challenge we face as a nation is to revitalize our democracy and its institutions. How do we do this? Calls for greater public participation and involvement are on target, but not enough. I believe we need to repair our frayed institutions and push back against the forces that divide us.

We are, after all, the United States. Our name expresses an ideal. So does our history, which over time has trended toward expanding inclusivity and opportunity for all. One place to start is to take inspiration from that history: to recognize where we’ve fallen short, but also to highlight the remarkable progress we’ve made.

We also need to recognize that divisiveness weakens us, and that efforts to reknit American society are now urgently important.

To that end, proposals for a year of national service are particularly welcome. This would be expensive but focusing young Americans on a year of shared endeavor with others from vastly different backgrounds would help meet many needs and be well worth the expense.

We also need to up our game as ordinary citizens to beat back the drivers of polarization. Among other things, this means seeking out alternative points of view in the media and valuing objective, factual reporting. And it means being thoughtful about our engagement: voting for candidates focused on pulling us together for the common good and putting our time and effort into causes that unite rather than divide us.

In short, we must decide what we can do in the voting booth and in our own communities to revitalize our representative democracy. Our aim is to make our neighborhoods and our country better places to live: more creative, inclusive, and welcoming. The answer lies not in the stars, but with 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. Send comments to [email protected].

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