Summing up democracy
It’s so easy, in the course of our day-to-day lives, to get caught up in the political preoccupations of the moment. What’s the Senate going to do about the filibuster? How should infrastructure money be spent? Is the country going to come out of this year as badly divided as it started? These and many other questions matter a lot, but sometimes it’s helpful to step back and take stock of what we’ve learned over the course of our history.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading Jon Meacham’s 2018 book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.” In it, Meacham notes that we’ve been badly divided and knocked back on our heels in the past but have always managed to work our way through those difficulties. He cites a variety of writers and speakers, and a number of them have stuck with me, because they’re both reassuring and a challenge. They remind us that sustaining our democracy is hard work and that its vitality depends on each of us not just to participate, but to make the effort to understand and talk to people we don’t agree with and to do our best to discern the facts on which all genuine progress relies.
Here they are, with a couple I’ve added on my own that speak to the same issues:
• “Do not expect to accomplish anything without an effort.” Teddy Roosevelt said this in an 1883 speech called “The Duties of American Citizenship.”
• “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics.” This is Roosevelt again, in the same speech, making the point (in the language of the time) that being an American citizen means being willing to engage in the work of democracy.
• “Speak up, show up and stand up.” That’s Georgia’s Stacey Abrams laying out, in concise form, the basic challenges for anyone trying to affect the course of public life.
• “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments.” This is Meacham himself, with a reminder that progress comes slow and hard.
• “Nowhere is the rule of public opinion so complete as in America, or so direct.” This was Englishman James Bryce, writing in The American Commonwealth, which appeared in 1888.
• “People are responsible for the government they get.” Harry Truman summed up our core responsibility: We have to choose our political leaders wisely.
• “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own.” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote this in a book published when she was 76, “You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life.”
• “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” I include this remark by George W. Bush — in a speech he gave to a joint session of Congress following the 9/11 attacks — because it’s a cogent reminder that keeping our eye on the target matters in public policy.
• “The people have often made mistakes, but, given time and the facts, they will make the corrections.” This was Truman again. I like his confidence.
• “America of the 21st century is, for all its shortcomings, freer and more accepting than it has ever been.” Meacham makes it clear that our nation, despite its many stumbles, has moved toward progress, in no small part because the American people, as Truman suggests above, have set it on that course.
• “It is in order that each one of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence … The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.” Abraham Lincoln said this in 1864. His words remind us that safeguarding a freely chosen, democratically elected government that creates the conditions for each of us to succeed by dint of our efforts is what engaging in politics is all about.
Editor’s note: Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser 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.