A couple of decades ago, I wrote a book in which I talked about what it takes to be a good citizen in a representative democracy like ours. I thought the principles I laid out were timeless, but I recently reread them and boy, they seem a lot less clear-cut now.
In principle, everything I wrote back then is still key to the functioning of our democracy: you need to vote; you need to take the time to be informed about policy and politics; you need to be in touch with your representatives to let them know what’s important to you; and you need to be involved in making your community, state, and country a better place to live. Each of these still matters. A lot.
But over the past 20 years, each has also become more difficult, more politically fraught, and more challenging to navigate responsibly. Some states are trying to make voting more difficult. Misinformation is rampant, and not only online. Being in touch with legislators and becoming involved in public issues have lost their innocence since Jan. 6 and threats to politicians and other public officials became commonplace.
I see the fallout regularly when I talk with young people who want to become involved in politics or in community affairs but worry about what they might be exposing themselves to if they do. The challenge we face is that our system won’t work unless citizens participate in a constructive fashion. In a sense, there’s now a fifth responsibility for us to shoulder as good citizens: overcoming the predicaments we face on the road to the other four.
Twenty years ago, I’d have said that the foundation of good citizenship was voting. I’ve changed my mind. I believe everything else flows from taking responsibility for being informed. This means looking for trustworthy sources of information, being on guard against misinformation and biased interpretations, and recognizing that in the online world in particular, false or slanted information is rampant. Let me be blatant: Mainstream news organizations have plenty of faults and sometimes go astray, but day in and day out they’re the most reliable source of news and information out there. But it’s not safe to rely on just one: Seeking a variety of sources beyond your own ideological wheelhouse will make you far more knowledgeable.
This, obviously, is key to being a voter. So, I would argue, is advocating for making it as easy to vote as possible while making sure that the mechanics of elections remain secure. We are stronger as a country when more people have a stake in choosing our leadership.
In a sense, being knowledgeable and well-informed is also key to being in touch with legislators and to promoting a cause or taking on an issue. Lawmakers are bombarded with input from others. To be effective, it helps to look at sources on both sides of the issue and understand the arguments that seem most persuasive. Similarly, if you’re contacting a member based on the request of some interest group (or someone you’ve seen on television or online), you want to spend a little time gauging the reliability of the information they’re using; just firing off a message that parrots their argument is unlikely to be productive.
The same sentiment holds for becoming involved in community or public life. Involvement is great — but not blind involvement. How reliable is the information you’re basing your actions on? Is your involvement helping, rather than hurting because it’s based on incorrect information? Similarly, if someone asks you to get involved to save your town or state or country from some alleged peril, how accurately have they depicted the problem and have you carefully sorted out the claims on both sides of the issue?
I know. All of this seems like a lot of work. And it is. But American democracy was built on the assumption of an engaged and well-informed electorate. It’s gotten a lot more complicated over the centuries, but if one core truth has remained constant, it’s this: If responsible citizens do not participate in the system, then the system will not work. It’s as simple as that.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.