America’s founders gave us a terrific blessing: a system of government with sufficient authority to function in the national interest but with clear constraints on governmental power. In fact, it was those constraints — federal authority divided and subdivided, with clear limits on what government could do — that ensured the protection of personal liberties that give the United States its distinctive character. Central to that focus on liberty was a government in which very limited authority was placed in the presidency and almost every major power — over war, taxes, spending, creating or eliminating government programs, accepting or rejecting treaties, final say over who would sit in the Cabinet or on the Supreme Court — was placed in the hands of the people themselves, through their elected representatives in Congress.
And that’s why the Constitution is a decidedly mixed blessing. Today, there are more than 300 million Americans with different backgrounds, different life experiences, different economic interests, and decidedly different opinions about what government should do about the economy, taxes, defense, immigration policy, even the very role of government. With so many diverse opinions, at some point, after the vigorous debates that are a necessary part of any true democracy, those representatives in the House and Senate must be able to find the areas of possible compromise, the patch of common ground on which policy can be made.
The founders protected our liberties, but they placed the burden of making government work directly on our shoulders as the CEOs of this national enterprise.
It is a task we are failing to fulfill. Or to put it more bluntly, if the United States were a college course, we the people would be flunking Democracy 101. There are multiple reasons for this: we’ve created election and governing systems that reward intransigence and punish cooperation and compromise; we’ve allowed our schools to short circuit the teaching of civics, critical thinking, and the humanities, the essential building blocks of citizenship; we’ve given our support to a bifurcated news media that specializes in exaggeration and demonization; we’ve found ourselves too busy to regularly participate in elections (as candidates, contributors, volunteers, or voters); and, perhaps worst of all, studies find that we as a people are more and more inclined to associate mostly with people who think the way we do and to “inform” ourselves by watching, listening to, and reading opinions that simply reinforce what we already believe.
Our education thus too often becomes narrow and one-sided, and, because our opinions are constantly being reinforced, we tend to become ever more confirmed in our belief that we are right and that people who disagree with us are wrong and that there is therefore something wrong with them. One side of the argument may believe that those on the other side lack heart, while their opponents believe they lack intelligence. The reasonable goal, then, is to smash the bad guys before they can do harm. Compromise — the necessary ingredient in democracy — becomes reclassified as a sellout, an abandonment of principle.
We see the results of this distortion in political primaries (hardliners vowing to defeat the insufficiently pure), redistricting (shaping congressional districts to win partisan majorities instead of maximizing the congressional representativeness envisioned by the Constitution), members of Congress placed on important committees (the choke-points where legislation advances or dies) according to how strongly they stand firm behind a partisan position. Intelligent observers blame public officials for this behavior, and the condemnation is well deserved. But too little noticed is the fact that this behavior flows directly from the way we the people — the bosses for whom these officials work — share much of the blame for the reward and punishment system that dictates these out comes. If a new John F. Kennedy were to urge us today to “ask not what your country can do for you,” he might be laughed at — after all, we might ask, isn’t that what our elections are supposed to be about: choosing which candidate will do the most for us? But President Kennedy was right: we should be asking ourselves instead, what can we do for our country? One place to start is to take the steps necessary to take up the burden the founders placed on us: to become engaged, informed, thoughtful members of our great democracy. To question our own certainties and begin to reward, not punish, those elected officials who set aside partisan advantage in pursuit of the compromises that will allow us to function as one people, Americans in common, with shared problems and a need for shared solutions.