Can the People Govern?

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Wednesday, July 18, 2001
Ask someone to define our democracy, and I'll bet he or she quotes Abraham Lincoln back to you. A Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, is how the 16th president put it in the Gettysburg Address. For most of us, those are the words that first come to mind when we think about democracy. 

But do they really mean anything, these days? Our country is much larger and much more diverse than in Lincoln's day, and we live in an era in which many Americans question government's effectiveness and responsiveness and are increasingly disengaged from its work. Small wonder President Lincoln's words today sometimes seem to ring a little hollow. But as someone who's spent a lifetime in politics, I'm here to tell you that they're not. It's just that we need to think about them a bit differently than you might imagine. 

There are two ways of looking at Lincoln's definition of democracy. One way -the usual way- is to think of government made up of individual people, who try through one means or another to impact the political process. The other way is to imagine the people not as a collection of individuals, but as a community. 

As individuals, it's true, our influence on the government can be fairly limited. Today the issues before Congress can be so big, so technical, so complex, so rapidly changing that you wonder how much detailed guidance we could reasonably expect from people individually. As a community of people who reside in this great nation, however, we share certain core values and have certain views about what should be on the national agenda. These values and basic ideas shape over time a collective opinion that politicians ignore at their peril. 

Do you think I'm wrong? Let's take our values. How many people do you know who constantly question our Constitution and the system of government it creates? Do your friends think that violence is the way to get what they want? Or that unethical conduct is desirable in public or even private life? And how many would reject fundamental notions of fairness and equality of opportunity? The answer to all those questions, of course, is Avery few, if any. The people convey to their elected representatives certain values like fairness and decency and support for our constitutional system and they want government policies to reflect those values. 

The guidance, it's true, can be broad, and public policy issues can be complex and numerous. Legislators searching for the people's wisdom on current issues aren't going to find much guidance on questions like whether patients ought to be suing their HMOs in the federal or state courts. 

Yet there are also times when legislators know exactly what their constituents want them to work on. A few years back, for instance, whenever I went home to meet with voters, people stood up in meeting after meeting and talked about public education. Now, I'd been in Congress for 25 years, and in all that time I doubt the subject came up on more than a handful of occasions; it was a state issue, or a local matter, and no one figured their representative in Washington had much to do with it. But suddenly, concern about public schools had reached such a pitch that the issue crystallized in people's minds as a matter for the federal government. Now it's a front-burner item on Capitol Hill. There are, of course, practical limitations on Americans' capacity to guide our elected officials on every public policy issue before them. Yet time and again, the people are able to direct the attention of elected representatives to the problems and concerns that they want government to address. When public opinion coalesces on an issue, rarely do politicians ignore it. 

So Lincoln's definition of democracy is right on two counts: individuals can impact the process of governing in many constructive ways; and, perhaps even more important, the people as a community convey important broad messages about values, fundamental ideas, and the policy agenda to their elected officials. In the end it really is a government of, by, and for the people. 

(Lee 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.)