Lee Hamilton: Defending democracy is our defining challenge

By Lee Hamilton
For The Republic

We Americans share a common faith in democracy as the best and most just system of governance. We treasure government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” With the founders, we believe that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed.

For generations, we have seen the United States as the world’s champion of democracy. We challenge and criticize authoritarian regimes and cheer the spread of democratic movements. We defend human rights and promote international cooperation.

There are troubling signs, however, that the light of our democracy no longer shines as brightly as it once did. A recent report by Freedom House said democracy was “under siege” and worldwide, freedom had declined for 15 straight years. Surveys last year in Europe and Asia found most people thought American democracy was once a good example to follow, but it no longer is.

What can we do to strengthen democracy and restore its appeal? I believe we are most effective and convincing when we demonstrate that our system can govern, that it can solve big problems: in short, when we show that democracy works.

This happens when we recognize the need for social and political change in our own country and pursue it. When we work to secure a free press and freedom of conscience. When we participate in elections and agree to abide by their results, whether we win or lose. When we oppose efforts to erect barriers to democracy or dismantle it, at home or abroad. When we make clear that democracy is not negotiable but that it is bedrock to our system.

Our example shines forth when we are in the front of the line standing for justice, the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. When we promote democracy, consistently and without reservation, as the best way to peacefully resolve problems.

It may not be surprising that surveys found a lack of faith in American democracy in the months after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, trying to overturn the 2020 election. Our deeply polarized politics and the partisan dysfunction in Washington do not inspire confidence in our system.

President Joe Biden is right when he says preserving and strengthening the role of democracy is the defining challenge of our time. The United States must be the global leader in championing democracy, and commit to this fight to determine the direction the world takes in the decades ahead.

All of this requires constant effort. Democracy is not a given; it’s not static but dynamic, always aborning, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, and it always needs defending. American democracy remains a work in progress. In Biden’s words, defending it requires an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals.

In foreign affairs, the United States must counter authoritarianism, fight corruption, support human rights and encourage accountability. We shouldn’t do this arrogantly, insisting that we always know best, but we should lead by example and encourage those seeking freedom and democracy.

At home, we need to promote civic engagement and put democratic participation at the center of our public life. We need to protect our elections and make it easier, not harder, to vote. Our commitment to democracy should shine through in all that we say and do.

Obviously, we will not always agree. When we don’t, we should rely on democratic means to settle our differences and help define, over time, the course of generations to come. We believe democracy is the best system of governing. We should always promote our core values, even as we try to live up to them and constantly strive to do better at fulfilling our ideals.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected]