Right now, with the elections almost upon us, the nation’s attention is understandably drawn to what happens in the voting booth. Yet as crucial as voting may be to making our representative democracy work, what happens outside the voting booth is just as crucial.
So I’d like to take a step back from the politics of the moment, and consider five essentials to living in a democratic country that you’re unlikely to see mentioned in the next few weeks’ news coverage.
The first is transparency. Without it, voters cannot do the work our Constitution entrusts to them. With very few exceptions — mostly related to national security — information generated or gathered by the government should be public.
Why? Because if citizens do not know what’s being done in their name, and so are unable to pass informed judgment on the elected officials and administrations who govern on their behalf, then you cannot have a representative democracy worthy of the name.
Government needs daylight, and citizens have to be able to weigh decisions and assess the decision-makers. It is all too common for public officials to want to hold information to themselves; it makes them feel more important and makes policy-making easier. But be suspicious of those who do so. Surely the burden is on them to persuade us that keeping us in the dark is to our benefit.
The second essential follows naturally from transparency: accountability. It is part of democracy’s bedrock— and is vital to good governance. Officials have to be held accountable for their actions and their decisions, especially if they choose not to adhere to their obligations or to follow the law.
This is not as rigorous as it ought to be. Officials seldom step up and say, “I’m responsible for this.” Within government, there needs to be a clear command and control structure that promotes accountability, with clean lines of authority. Decision-makers have to take responsibility for what they are charged to do. Few things in government frustrated me more than my often unsuccessful efforts to learn who was in charge.
Our system was created to encourage accountability by balancing power — among the three branches, between the House and Senate, between the federal government and the states, between elected officials and voters. The Founders set up a system of elaborate checks and balances to prevent abuse and the concentration of power, because they believed that the accumulation of power in any person or institution diminished accountability and could lead to tyranny.
At the same time, however, our system demands cooperation: between branches, parties, political leaders— really, all of us. We’re all in this together, and in the end, government cannot function if we do not work in a cooperative manner.
That’s why people like bipartisanship: it’s a key sign of cooperation. Polarization and extreme partisanship rightly irritate Americans because they exacerbate the differences among us. They make it much harder to govern. Trying to get all hands to work together for the common good is right at the core of representative democracy.
Which means that inclusivity is also key. People don't want to be shut out or to be voiceless. Being shunted aside by those in power only builds resentment and anger.
The fourth essential is actually a matched set: accuracy, integrity, fairness — these are traditional values that ought never to go out of style, even if sometimes they appear to be in eclipse. If those who operate our system speak untruths, lack basic honesty, and show bias, it will surely fail.
Finally, democracy rests on pragmatism. Strong institutions to carry out policy, highly competent government officials, realistic expectations on what can and cannot be achieved, civility, compromise, and respect for all views — these are the necessary ingredients to make progress in a complex, divided country.
Pragmatism does, however, need to be leavened with a little optimism. Governing effectively requires a mindset that progress is possible, that we can understand the problem, look at proposed solutions, make rational judgments about what should be done, and then get them enacted into law and implemented.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.