Notes from all over

by GDA


Guest Editorial
The Coin of the Realm
By Lee H. Hamilton

Debate in Congress has always been contentious. I can remember times on Capitol Hill when "debate" was actually more of a screaming match than a civil discussion. Back then, we had a colleague who stepped forward at these times to remind each side that if we wanted to get anything done - rather than just shout at each other for the cameras - we had to have a measure of trust in one another. He was right.
Representative government depends on trust. It depends on trust among policy-makers in Congress, and on popular trust in the people who make decisions on Capitol Hill and in the White House. It depends on trust in those who are charged with implementing those laws. And it requires trust in the institutions in which those decisions are produced and implemented.
Trust really is the coin of the realm. If there's nothing but cynicism, deep suspicion, and lack of confidence in the system, it cannot work.
Think about it from the point of view of ordinary citizens. We have to believe that our voices will be heard, listened to, and taken into consideration in the halls of power. Which is why it is so damaging when government acts in ways that diminish trust. If you feel that government is just helping corporations and rich people, you lose confidence in the system. And government has to be able to deliver the goods, the services, the protections that people expect.
The same with our elected representatives. We have to believe they will, in fact, level with us rather than present half-truths and distortions, and will act in our interests. If they can't show they're able to function according to the rules, traditions and norms that we expect, if they are unable to acknowledge the facts, if they cannot rise above division and gridlock and negotiate to get things done, then we lose faith.
There is no doubt that my colleague was right. If the various levels of government don't enjoy the trust of the people, then representative democracy doesn't work. Which is why the low levels of trust we see in the United States today are so worrisome. How far down this road can we go before we lose the ability to function effectively as a democracy?
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.