For those of us who think and write about democracy, few things are more appealing than a book about how to make it work better. My shelves are groaning with them.
They contain a lot of good, helpful ideas. There are proposals on how to improve elections and plans for strengthening legislative bodies, judicial systems, and the rule of law. There’s a whole body of literature on how to make government and civil institutions stronger and more effective. There are ideas for buttressing the press and the public’s access to information, and schemes for improving the civic organizations, think tanks, watchdog groups and policy-focused nonprofits that make our democracy so vibrant.
But over time, I’ve concluded that as complicated as democracy’s workings might be, one thing matters above all else: effective leadership. It might not guarantee results, but without it, nothing much happens.
I saw this throughout my career in Congress, but it was most obvious in the counties and communities that made up my district. What struck me over and over was the difference that good leadership — both within and outside government — could make.
For instance, we now have fairly elaborate programs for the education of special-needs children. In my state of Indiana, and in many others, this was not true a relatively short while ago. But over the years, parents, teachers, school leaders and others recognized the need, stepped forward and pressed for change at every level, from the school board to Congress.
Similarly, managing water resources has been an enormous challenge — dealing with floods when there’s too much and drought when there’s too little are pressing matters in rural and urban areas. But over the years, I’ve watched countless local leaders do the hard, sometimes tedious work of developing watershed programs. Our water supply today is far better managed than it used to be.
Everything from getting a gate put in at a dangerous rail crossing to strengthening local health-care facilities to building an effective local law-enforcement system — with capable police chiefs, dedicated judges and energetic prosecutors — demands that people step forward and lead. Strong leadership matters: to quality of life, to how well communities respond to challenges, and to how vital our communities are.
Being an active citizen matters, too, but as citizens we know that we depend heavily on good leaders to make our communities work. We rely on people to roll up their shirtsleeves at every level of our democracy, and we demand a great deal of them. We want them to set goals and motivate us. We expect them to plan, organize and manage effectively. We hope that they can take the disparate strands of our communities in hand and make sure they’re all pointed in the same direction. We look for a sort of tough-minded optimism, a conviction that “I can make a difference and so can you” so that we’ll be inspired and energized by it.
That’s why communities pay so much attention to leadership development — to identifying and training young leaders who can make a difference in the places they live. Strong, capable, determined leadership provides the energy that improves the quality of life in a community and breathes life into our representative democracy.
One of the eternally refreshing gifts of our representative democracy is that it encourages people to solve problems in their community — to remember, as the saying goes, that democracy is not a spectator sport. Maybe they love where they live and want to make it better; maybe they have a child with special needs who is not being served well by the schools; perhaps they know in their hearts that they can do a better job than the people who are in charge right now. Whichever it is, people step forward, often out of nowhere, to take matters in hand. That’s what moves us forward as a society.
“I believe in democracy because it releases the energies of every human being,” President Woodrow Wilson said.
It is the great paradox of representative democracy: We are free to remain passive, but we can’t make progress unless skillful, can-do people recognize that with freedom comes the responsibility to lead.
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.