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To govern well return to basics

POSTED: August 5, 2008 5:00 a.m.
We are at a profoundly unsettled time in our nation’s history, with more than two-thirds of Americans professing in surveys that they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. They are partly reflecting concerns of the moment — the Iraq war, high gas prices, our economic travails — but polling also shows a more deep-seated dismay at the track our political system has taken.
Our politics is fragmented and often mean-spirited. Americans are disappointed by a sense that we lack unity and national purpose. They are disillusioned by a political leadership that has failed to instill these things, and many believe they and their concerns are unrepresented in the halls of power. Faith in our system is ailing.
So while out on the hustings the talk is mostly of policy — what to do about the economy or our standing in the world or our dysfunctional health-care system — there is a more fundamental conversation that ought to be happening, as well: If we are to fix our government so it works competently, effectively, and democratically, how should we go about it? What would it take not only to revive our system, but also our people's faith in it?
My answer may seem odd, given how badly askew most Americans believe things have gotten: Rather than “fix” our representative government, we need to let it function as designed. We have to return to the basics of our constitutional system, understanding and appreciating its intent and contemplating how this might apply to our vastly changed circumstances today.
It’s worth remembering that the basic operating manual for our government was written some 220 years ago, when we were a much smaller, less complicated, less diverse nation, when communications and events moved much more slowly, and when the sheer breadth and scope of challenges facing the government — while hardly minor — were more manageable. If anything, it’s remarkable that our system continues to work even reasonably well.
Still, things are out of whack. Too much power has come to rest in the president’s hands, and it needs to be spread more widely again. The “balance of power” should be observed in actuality, not merely in seventh-grade civics class. As Alexander Hamilton said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both therefore ought to have power, that each may defend itself against the other.”
We also need to accept that there will inevitably be conflict — our system presupposes it — but that winning political battles is not the highest good; rather, resolving conflict within the confines of the Constitution and according to democratic principles trumps the victory-at-all-costs mentality that has been so prevalent in recent years. Compromise and accommodation, especially in a nation with so many varied interests at play, are the key to policy success and political legitimacy.
This, in turn, means tolerating and encouraging lively debate and thorough deliberation, both in Washington and among a population that seems to be losing the habit of listening to those with whom we disagree. For lawmakers and Americans in general to accept the results of political compromise, they have to feel they’ve been represented in the discussion.
All of which is to say that what our Founders knew, and tried to ensure, was that in governance, the means are more important than the end. The process matters more than the result, in part because a legitimate process is the only way to ensure that those in government collectively focus on the common good, and in part because resolving our policy dilemmas requires a focused and functioning representative government.
Yet even if all these things happen, restoring Americans’ faith in the system will require one other thing — patience. While our government needs to respond to the demands of its citizens, under our system the response is typically slow because it’s meant to be slow.
Our government was not designed to respond to every passing fancy of the people, but rather to give judicious consideration to the nation’s needs. Nor can it solve all of our problems. Our representatives may strive to sort out the hopes, desires, and dreams of the American people, and to come up with the best solutions they can, but the plain fact is that some problems are so difficult and our perspectives so varied that only stalemate is possible.
Our expectations, in other words, need to be high but realistic. We should expect a government that encourages cohesion and political stability, and safeguards individual freedom, prosperity, and peace. If it can do that, then the fact that it can't resolve every problem we confront will come to seem a tolerable imperfection, rather than the dismaying infirmity that so many Americans believe it to be today.

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.
 

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