There is a deep vein of pessimism running through the country right now. And I’m not even talking about the overwhelming numbers of people who tell pollsters that we’re “on the wrong track,” which suggests that we can simply throw a switch to get onto the right one.
More worrisome is the prevailing belief that our problems are here for the long haul. This was the message of a recent poll in the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill, which found almost 70 percent of respondents saying that the U.S. is “in decline,” 83 percent either very or somewhat worried about the nation’s future, and a bare 19 percent believing that the U.S. will still be the most powerful country on earth 20 years from now. Americans are dejected.
I understand the sentiment, but it is far too soon to give in to it. If you look at our system’s abiding strengths, rather than the shortcomings of the moment, you can’t help but conclude that the challenges ahead of us may be formidable, but they are not unmanageable.
For one thing, we have a durable Constitution that has given us more than two centuries of political stability — weathering along the way a civil war, multiple wars overseas, economic and political turmoil, and sweeping movements for social change. We work out our difficulties within its generous confines, not by ignoring it or trying to dismantle it. I’ve conducted hundreds of public meetings, some of them quite heated, and never once do I recall anyone suggesting that we ditch the U.S. Constitution.
Just as important, our nation possesses an open and energetic spirit. We have a long history of renewing ourselves through immigration and openness to new ideas and other cultures; we’re blessed with vast economic resources and can deploy a dynamic, talented and innovative workforce; we educate our young adults at institutions of higher education that are the envy of the world; and we encourage all these assets to flourish in a free, secure and democratic society. Our fundamentals, in other words, are quite strong.
So is the system within which they operate. It may be hard these days to find many people who think of Congress or the political system it represents as being core American strengths, but they are. The system protects against arbitrary authority, enshrines fundamental power in a body elected by the broad mass of the people, and balances the three branches of government. It strives — however imperfectly — for liberty and justice for all.
It allows ordinary citizens to create change and try to improve the quality of American lives, encouraging this to happen in an evolutionary, not revolutionary, fashion. These values are alive and well in the hearts of the American people, who refresh the system every two years with their votes.
Our government is built on the belief that ultimate power rests with a diverse people, and that they need a way to make their many voices heard and to work out their differences peaceably. This is what Congress is about — it makes sure that society’s varied and conflicting opinions are heard before government acts, it moderates tensions among competing interests, and it does so in a measured fashion that tends over time to force policy-makers to find consensus and move toward the center.
This is why, if you look backward, the work of the Congress over many decades has had such a fundamentally positive impact on Americans’ daily lives, in ways we should be grateful we can take for granted.
I would be the last person to argue that things are perfect — either in Congress or within the political system as a whole. Our institutions need plenty of reforms that ought to be on the front burner and aren’t. It would be hard to argue that, faced with a mass of serious challenges, we are dealing with them efficiently or with far-sightedness. Local, partisan and private interests too often prevail over the national interest. Our system too often favors the rich and ignores the poor, and the solutions to this and other fundamental problems often seem beyond our reach.
Yet these problems characterize this particular moment in our history, not our basic way of being. They may be discouraging, but they are not crippling. The American people have not given up on our system of government — they believe we can still build a shining city on a hill. Our challenge as a nation is not to reinvent ourselves, but to use the abundant strengths we possess to find our way through our problems and emerge stronger on the other side.
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.