One of the not-so-small gifts of living in a representative democracy is that you can’t accomplish things alone. Whether you’re trying to get a stop sign put up on a dangerous corner or to change US policy on greenhouse gas emissions, you have to reach out to others. Learning the skills of active citizenship makes this a stronger, more resilient country.
So I want to make a case for building and using those skills by tackling the issues right in front of us. True, there are battles aplenty on the big issues, and they do matter. But so does improving the quality of life where we live.
As a member of Congress, I was constantly impressed by the issues constituents wanted addressed: they were usually linked in some way to the larger issues we took up on Capitol Hill, but always approached with the unique perspective of the particular community.
These ranged widely. One group’s purpose was to upgrade railroad warning lights, after too many accidents at crossings spurred them on.
In a drought-stricken community, residents came together to manage the use of water in their watershed. Schools were a constant concern, as were roads and bridges and other community infrastructure needs.
All of these commanded attention from ordinary people who identified the problem, gathered allies, debated tactics, and found a way to make their communities better.
Often these were people who were not closely connected with politics or government. They just wanted to improve something in their community. I came to see these examples as the wellspring of representative democracy.
Even at the local level, things can get complicated.
There will always be voices for leaving things be. But that’s the nature of the democratic process: change deserves debate, and learning to marshal facts, find and work with allies, and ultimately sway public opinion is part and parcel of living in the system we enjoy.
Participating in the process challenges us to make our case, develop our skills of persuasion, and become better at speaking, listening, building consensus, and being an engaged member of a community.
These are the bedrock skills on which democracy rests, and the more of us who possess them, the stronger our system will be.
Nothing in public life gave me greater pleasure than to see citizens in action.
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.