One of the not-so-small gifts of living in a representative democracy is that you can’t accomplish things alone. Whether you’re trying to get a stop sign put up on a dangerous corner or to change US policy on greenhouse gas emissions, you have to reach out to others. And learning how to persuade, motivate, and involve them — learning the skills of active citizenship, in other words — makes this a stronger, more resilient country.
So I want to make a case for building and using those skills by tackling the issues right in front of us. We all live in communities that we know better than anyone who doesn’t live there — including the policy makers who every day make decisions on larger issues that affect our lives there. Who better than those who live in a particular community to step up, identify its problems, and then work to solve them?
Don’t get me wrong. There are battles aplenty on the big issues of health care, education, the role of government, tax policy, foreign policy, etc. These matter, and they require the attention of ordinary citizens as well as of political leaders and policy makers.
But so does improving the quality of life where we live. As a member of Congress, I was constantly impressed by the issues constituents wanted addressed; they were usually linked in some way to the larger issues we took up on Capitol Hill, but always approached with the unique perspective of the particular community.
These approaches ranged widely. One group’s purpose was to upgrade railroad warning lights after too many accidents at crossings spurred them on. In a drought-stricken community, residents came together to manage the use of water in their watershed. Schools were a constant concern, as parents struggled to make sure that bright kids could be challenged while kids who were struggling or in some other way disadvantaged got opportunities to find a path to success. Hospital emergency rooms, roads and bridges, community centers and programs for the elderly — all of these commanded attention from ordinary people who identified the problem, gathered allies, debated tactics, and found a way to make their communities better.
Often these were people who were not closely connected with politics or government. They just wanted to improve something in their community, so they learned how the system works, and then learned how to make it work to help them accomplish their goals. Some of them, over time, became community leaders and moved on to school boards, city councils, and state legislatures after honing their democratic skills by working on problems of immediate concern. Others went back to their lives, pleased that they’d improved one aspect of their neighbors’ lives.
I came to see these examples as the wellspring of representative democracy.
To be sure, even at the local level, things can get complicated. It used to puzzle me when someone would come forward with an idea to improve a water system or a sewer system, and just as quickly opposition would pop up. Often this was because improvement required change — including, sometimes, a tax increase. And there will always be voices for leaving things be. But that’s the nature of the democratic process: change deserves debate, and learning to marshal facts, find and work with allies, and ultimately sway public opinion is part and parcel of living in the system we enjoy.
The more people are willing to do this, the more confident we can be that the answer to Lincoln’s question at Gettysburg — can this nation “long endure” — is Yes. It works if citizens step up to address the needs and conditions they face. Participating in the process challenges us to make our case, develop our skills of persuasion, and become better at speaking, listening, building consensus, and being an engaged member of a community.
These are the bedrock skills on which democracy rests, and the more of us who possess them, the stronger our system will be. Nothing in public life gave me greater pleasure than to see citizens in action.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and a professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.