We Americans live in a representative democracy. That’s a fundamental feature of public life in the United States, a part of who we are as a people. We elect leaders to make decisions on our behalf.
It’s not a pure democracy, in which the people vote on every important issue and the majority gets its way. Sometimes we do vote on questions of public interest: amendments to the national and state constitutions, for example, and referendums on whether to raise taxes or adopt new laws.
But, for the most part, we govern by representative democracy. We entrust elected representatives, from the president down to township officials and the local school board, to look out for our interests and carry out our wishes. Our elected officials debate the issues and vote.
This was the approach that our nation’s founders established over 200 years ago, and it’s one that we have chosen to embrace and renew, generation after generation. There’s nothing inevitable or preordained about this. Other nations have adopted different systems, and we could, too. Some have moved far to the right, instituting fascist rule. Some of moved to the left, adopting socialism. We’ve also seen authoritarian regimes that combine features of the right and left.
But in the United States, representative democracy has served us well, and it has expanded over the years. At America’s founding, only white men who owned property were routinely permitted to vote. Black Americans were given the right after the Civil War; in practice, many were kept from voting for 100 years by poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation. The 19th Amendment, ensuring suffrage for women, wasn’t ratified until 1920.
As the franchise expanded, government grew more representative of America. Today, women hold a record 153 of the 540 voting and nonvoting seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Some 133 senators and representatives identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian American, American Indian or Alaska Native, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
This is important, but it’s not enough. If our representatives are going to represent our interests, they must cultivate political skills: the ability to communicate, speak persuasively and listen with discernment, to focus on real problems and bring people together to solve them. These skills are often underappreciated, but they are essential for translating the will of the people to effective government. Our representatives need to be willing to compromise, and it’s troubling that our politics have grown so polarized that compromise can seem like a dirty word.
The authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote that we rely on government to secure our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As Americans, we particularly value liberty: our freedom to live as we please. But we also must recognize that our freedom shouldn’t curtail the rights of others. Government should look out for everyone, not just the powerful or politically connected.
Finally, living in a representative democracy puts a premium on elections and voting. We need to have confidence that our elections are free and fair. Former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen did serious damage, leading to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and to divisions and distrust that persist today.
We also need to encourage voting and make it easier. It’s common for politicians to impose restrictions on registration and voting in the name of election security. This may help them win elections in the short run; but, in the long run, it undermines our system of government.
The ballot is the foundation of our democracy and the best way to gauge the public’s will. Fair elections that engage the voters are essential to making our representative government truly representative.
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]