You no doubt remember the old line attributed to Ben Franklin when he was asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created: “A republic, if you can keep it!”
At a time when Americans are as polarized as I've ever seen them, and when a lot of people believe our system of representative democracy is under existential stress, there is still broad (though not universal) agreement on the answer to the most basic question of all: Do we want to keep it? We may not be able to agree on values, cultural issues, national security, or the role of government. But we agree that we have to search for answers to our challenges, and that the foundations of our system matter.
The problem is, it's often hard to see that common ground. The world we live in is filled with forces that pull us apart – class, religion, ethnicity, ideology, and perhaps above all, inequality of economic opportunity. Worse, our public dialogue emphasizes these differences, discourages citizens from listening to one another, and dismisses those who want to come together, build consensus, understand the facts, and arrive at a common vision for what to do about them. In other words, the debate we have discourages the very process we need if we're to change direction.
I'll reach here for something you hear football coaches say a lot when their teams are in trouble: It's time for us to get back to practicing the fundamentals. We know that our system of representative democracy can work just fine. It's done so in the past, creating a nation that was, for a long time, an example and a beacon to downtrodden people across the globe. So we have to up our game, all of us, and make it work again.
To do this, we need to value the basics that got us here: openness, accountability, commitment, discipline, and above all a sense that each of us – whether a Cabinet secretary or a judge or a member of Congress or a state legislator or a concerned community member – is committed to making our corner of the world work as best it can.
Just as important, we need to choose our leaders wisely, electing men and women who echo our determination to improve on what we've spent centuries building.
I hear people express how turned off and disgusted they are by our circumstances. While I share their frustration, I don't in the least share their disdain. There's no question that our system needs reforms. But let's not let that blind us to what it's brought us and the opportunities it offers all of us.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House for 34 years.