I understand the sentiment, but it is far too soon to give in to it. If you look at our system’s abiding strengths, rather than the shortcomings of the moment, you can’t help but conclude that the challenges ahead of us may be formidable, but they are not unmanageable.
For one thing, we have a durable Constitution that has given us more than two centuries of political stability. Just as important, our fundamentals are strong: we have a long history of renewing ourselves through immigration, are blessed with vast economic resources, can deploy a dynamic, talented and innovative workforce, educate our young adults at institutions of higher education that are the envy of the world, and encourage all these assets to flourish in a free, secure, and democratic society.
It may be hard these days to find many people who think of Congress or the political system it represents as being core American strengths, but they are. Our government is built on the belief that ultimate power rests with a diverse people, and that they need a way to make their many voices heard and to work out their differences peaceably.
This is what Congress is about — it makes sure that society’s varied and conflicting opinions are heard before government acts, and then moves forward in a measured fashion that tends over time to force policy-makers to find consensus. This is why the work of the Congress over many decades has had such a fundamentally positive impact on Americans’ daily lives, in ways we should be grateful we can take for granted.
I would be the last to argue that things are perfect — either in Congress or within the political system as a whole. Our institutions need plenty of reforms that ought to be on the front burner and aren’t. Faced with a mass of serious challenges, we are not dealing with them efficiently or with far-sightedness. Local, partisan and private interests too often prevail over the national interest. Our system too often favors the rich and ignores the poor.
Yet these problems characterize this particular moment in our history, not our basic way of being. They may be discouraging, but they are not crippling. The American people have not given up on our system of government. Our challenge as a nation is not to reinvent ourselves, but to use the abundant strengths we possess to find our way through our problems and emerge stronger on the other side.
(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.)