With a presidential election year fast approaching, we’re in for a lot of public talk about the state of American democracy. Much of that discussion will be insightful and thought-provoking, but there’s a good chance you’ll also find a lot of it vague and hard to pin down.
There’s a reason for this. Even our political leaders, the people who are most familiar with the system’s workings, have a hard time describing it.
In fact, they even have a hard time labeling it. Ours is not actually a pure democracy: it’s more accurate to say that we live in a “representative democracy” in which the people delegate authority to their elected representatives.
No single feature defines this system. The people are sovereign and consent to be governed through regular participation in the elections that decide who will represent us. Yet elections don’t define our republic, either; there are plenty of countries around the world whose elections are used to distort democracy.
So the rule of law — and equal justice under the law — are key. The separation of powers among the different branches of government creates a balance designed to protect the people from overweening power. The rights guaranteed by our Constitution ensure that the rights of minorities of all kinds are safe.
The big challenge in all this is to set up the structures and practices that protect and defend these beliefs. The courts, legislative bodies and executive branches at the federal, state and local level are an example of this, along with a system of checks and balances that promotes accountability and transparency.
While representative democracy rests on a core set of principles, it remains a constantly evolving concept. By its nature, it is always a work in progress; we never really get the balance between liberty and justice exactly right.
This is worth remembering at the moment, when the problems we confront seem so overwhelming. Representative government is our great strength. It protects against arbitrary authority, strives for justice, hears our varied and conflicting opinions before it acts, and moderates tensions among competing interests. It works in a measured fashion that tends — over time — to encourage policymakers to find consensus. It is the form of government that, when allowed to work properly, is most likely to lead to wise policy, firmly rooted in the consent of the ordinary people on whose shoulders it rests.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.