We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.
The reason for this dissatisfaction is clear. Polls in recent years detail a polarized nation, divided both ideologically and politically. In the public’s eye, Washington gets most of the blame for this.
Yet Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe. Our nation is divided ideologically. And though we deplore negative politics, we respond to it and even encourage our favorite partisans to engage in it. Anyone who becomes President today does so with nearly half the country opposed to him the day he takes office. Moreover, we face a long list of issues where decisive action may be impossible, from abortion, to gun control, to immigration. These issues divide the nation, with no clear path forward.
Our admired political system, in other words, is not working well. So how do we resolve our dilemma?
Several procedural steps could ease the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Among them, the House and Senate could begin by scheduling themselves so that they’re in session at the same time. Congressional leaders and the President ought to meet at least once a month. Open primaries would help moderate the nation’s politics, as would bipartisan redistricting commissions capable of doing away with gerrymandered districts. Increasing voter participation and improving the integrity of our elections would also help. Limiting the Senate filibuster would open up debate and forestall endless stalemates.
It’s worth remembering that American politics is dynamic, not static. Change occurs, sometimes quickly, but more often slowly. We won’t forever be this evenly divided, because public opinion will eventually evolve and the system will respond.
Which raises my final point. Even when our frustration with division and discord spills over into impatience with the system itself, our obligations as American citizens remain the same. We face complex problems that demand a willingness to exercise the values of representative democracy: tolerance, mutual respect, accepting ideological differences, working to build consensus. Our core values accept that the differences in opinions among us will continue, but also compel us to find a way through them so the country can move forward. In the end, we created our political dilemma and are responsible for working our way through it.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.