The Merits of Civic Engagement

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Wednesday, October 15, 2003
During my 34 years in the Congress, I must have talked to hundreds of groups in my district about the importance of civic participation. They expected a big speech — and usually got one — but they were often surprised by what I had to say. 

Since I was a federal legislator, they assumed I’d be full of advice about getting involved with national politics: writing letters, meeting with members of Congress, following congressional debates on television, or checking members’ voting records. These are certainly worthy pursuits that merit encouragement. But I’d tell my constituents that civic life is best lived in the neighborhood, and that they could perform no better service than finding a problem within their community, and doing something about it. 

We would all like to engage to resolve the big problem. Fixing health care. Saving social security. Changing the tax code. Defending our nation against its enemies. Some of us have those opportunities, but most of us don’t. 

On the other hand, all of us can work for small, incremental changes. You can work to get a school rebuilt or a road repaired. You can make sure that ramps for the handicapped are carved into street corners. You can convince local officials to put up a safety signal at a dangerous intersection. You can help a worthy, disadvantaged student to enter medical school, or make sure that a young woman who lives in your town steps into the world with more opportunity than her mother. 

These are not trivial examples. They save lives and communities, and make them safer and better. The wellspring of American democracy lies in countless small actions like these that make ours a better nation. Indeed, I’ve always liked the attitude of the carpenter who said, “I cannot solve the world’s problems, but I can help build this house." 

It’s not always easy to become involved. We have other things to worry about — our jobs, our bills, the well-being of our families. No doubt, taking care of these private interests is a civic virtue in its own right, and we are good — in this country — at protecting our individual interests. But all of us benefit from giving at least some of our attention to advancing the public interest, or, as the founding fathers called it, the “common good." 

Most Americans would like to live in better communities, a better state, and a better nation. But they simply don’t know where to go, whom to talk to, what to do. The first step is to look around. Most of us are good at finding things that need improvement. What in your community needs fixing? What needs repair? Who are the key players in the town or city that you could talk to? How can you best communicate a grievance or articulate a solution? 

If you get to know your community well — the problems that need addressing, the various residents and the issues that engage their attention, the people who hold formal power and the informal leaders who have the ability to get a message out or pull a crowd together — you can become involved and you will achieve results. Set goals, craft messages, organize, and share the credit when you’re successful. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish. 

When we become involved in our communities, our cynicism dissipates and morale improves. Indeed, civic engagement is the greatest antidote I know for cynicism. Through it, we do more than improve our lives and surroundings — we reach a better understanding of our ability to influence change, and we no longer feel distant from centers of power and decision-making. Just as important, we gain an appreciation for the hard work of democracy — how to understand different points of view and forge a consensus behind a course of action towards a solution in a complex, busy, and diverse society. 

After all, the success of any democracy is determined by the participation of its citizens. When we do participate, we deepen our understanding of and appreciation for our communities and our country, and make the ongoing experiment of American democracy stronger. 

(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.)