Democracy Earned

United States Capitol Building
The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Zach Berger/Campaign Legal Center

Polls place public approval of Congress at near 10% - an all-time low - and President Obama's at about 41%, well below the average since Franklin Roosevelt. Should Americans be concerned?

Some might say no. It’s politics as usual - a confirmation of Mark Twain’s observation more than a century ago: Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. 

It is true that the democratic process is inherently untidy. And many players in our political system - especially those who have huge financial interests at stake - find it in their interests to foster apathy and cynicism with the goal of dissuading many Americans from engaging in the political system. This tactic gives power to those who pay the piper and in turn call (or unduly influence) the tune in the halls of power in Washington. 

Yet it may be unwise to simply shrug off the current malaise as part of the natural cycle of our democratic system. The tea party and "Occupy Wall Street" may be useful outlets for anger, but one should not assume that our American democracy is immortal, able to withstand assaults from within and without, and subject only to small hiccups springing forth from disagreements over our national ideals or destiny

Every generation has to earn its democracy. We forget that the legacy from the Greatest Generation - an economy and political system that is the envy of the world - may be our inheritance, but it is not preordained. In short, we get the democracy we deserve. 

Public confidence in the process is at the heart of a vibrant democracy. That is why the appearance of corruption can be nearly as dangerous as corruption itself. For our democratic system to work, the citizens need to have confidence that the vote they cast will be counted and tallied, and that elections matter. They need to have confidence that their elected leaders have the interests of their constituents foremost in their minds, as opposed to their own selfish interest or the interests of their most important funders. They need to have confidence that, while imperfect, the system will be eventually self-correcting.

Without it, our system erodes from both inside and out. Cynicism undermines public buy-in when shared sacrifice is called for. Apathy allows a smaller and smaller number of monies special interests to distort the system. Anger roils the public debate when calm and compromise are called for. 

When the 112th Congress returns for the second session, a budget breakthrough is probably too much to ask. The parties have hunkered down in their hardened missile silos on spending and taxes. But as our country enters a presidential election year that guarantees polarizing politics, voters should think long and hard about whom they reward with political victories. Shrill sound bites serving up red meat politics should not be valued over the commitment and competency to actually govern.

This opinion piece originally appeared in Politico's Arena on December 3, 2011.