“Our political system is broken.” “Congress is so polarized that no meaningful legislation can ever be passed.” “Our politicians are all corrupt.”
Phrases like these have become standard maxims of the American citizenry in recent years since our default response to any mention that our way of doing things politically might not be as great as we like to think it is.
After all our way at its core was only a “Great Experiment” in democracy. Perhaps the politicians of today simply aren’t up to the task of governing us anymore.
But there is one fundamental problem with logic like that — it is in direct violation of the founding principles of this country.
Inherent in the American political experience is vigorous and sustained participation by the citizens themselves, not just the politicians who govern them.
Consider the remarks of the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the United States.
“No sooner do you set foot upon American soil, than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamour is heard on every side; and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the immediate satisfaction of their social wants.”
When de Tocqueville composed his “Democracy in America,” he observed an integral feature of the democratic process that has been totally forgotten in today’s political culture.
If citizens are dissatisfied with the functioning of their government, it is in part their duty to take action to modify it. It is too often the case today that citizens believe that if an obstacle or problem manifests itself in the political process, it should be the sole responsibility of the politicians to remedy it.
This assumption is obviously not completely inaccurate. Of course the duty first falls upon politicians to fix governmental problems — that is their job — but it is also true that citizens, through their enthusiastic participation, play a vital role in engineering political change.
Indeed, the Constitution that we now hold so dear to us, might not even have been ratified if citizens did not participate in the political process.
Consider the example of The Federalist Papers that Robert Curry employs in his recent book, Common Sense Nation. These writings, as Curry notes, are considered to form the greatest book on political liberty in the history of the world, yet were editorials in newspapers that could be read by the ordinary citizen.
In today’s world, The Federalist Papers are almost exclusively read by scholars, not everyday citizens.
That is where the crucial difference lies between the citizenry of the past and the citizenry of today. Those who lived during the time of Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson and other founding fathers read the editorials, thought about them, debated them, and ultimately decided to vote for the Constitution.
In short, they exhibited a level of vigorous and sustained participation in the political process that is altogether inconceivable by today’s standards.
So maybe our political system is broken. Maybe Congress is hopelessly polarized and our politicians corrupt. Or maybe we have lost one of the essential ingredients to a successfully functioning democratic government.
Let’s just hope we haven’t lost any others.