The Heart of representative democracy rests in the communication between the electorate and elected officials. We should make this conversation more fruitful and effective. Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is, yes, we do ... But we have to exercise it.
If we're not just to throw in the towel and declare representative democracy a noble failure, then we have to restore Americans' faith in the processes of government. To do this, we must pursue a range of reforms and goals, some of which will require years of effort to achieve.
I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to journalism, I'm a traditionalist. Old-fashioned, even. But I don't think it's a coincidence that even while confidence in the media drops to new lows and Time magazine feels moved to wonder "Is Truth Dead?" on its cover, huge numbers of Americans have come to believe the media is not as authoritative as it once was.
The decision to send troops overseas requires clear eyes, hard questions and specific answers. The Trump Administration, like its predecessors, has shown an apparent appetite for the use of force overseas. The "mother of all bombs" dropped on Syrian troops, saber-rattling toward North Korea, deployments of U.S. forces in 10 or more countries — all of this suggests a growing comfort with the idea of putting our troops in dangerous places.
Politics can be messy, but not because it's tainted or morally bankrupt. It's messy because it often reflects deep-seated disagreements that are hard to resolve, with merit on both sides. I've had a number of conversations recently that convince me our country is divided into two political camps separated by a deep and uncomfortably wide gap. No, I'm not talking about liberals and conservatives, or pro- and anti-Trump voters. I'm talking about people who believe in politics and our political system, and people who don't.
With so much turmoil in Washington and around the country these days, it's easy to get caught up in the crises of the moment. These are, indeed, worth our attention — but so are longer-running developments that threaten the health of our representative democracy. I want to lay them out in one place, so that the most serious problems confronting our system don't slip from our attention.
The media must be dogged, skeptical and aggressive, calling elected and appointed officials to account and not letting them get away with evasions and manipulations. If you watched Donald Trump's press conference a few weeks back, you may have overlooked a telling and worrisome moment. A CNN reporter tried to ask the president-elect about the extent of his ties to Russian officials. "No! Not you. No! Your organization is terrible," responded Mr. Trump, and moved on to the next question.
The problem is not just the politicians. It's us, too. There are a lot of dire predictions about our representative democracy out there. We're just past a presidential election campaign in which candidates complained about a rigged political system. Now, commentators worry about the imminent failure of the American experiment.
This president-elect prides himself on unpredictability. But conducting policy in an unpredictable way is the mark of a rogue state. As Mario Cuomo said, politicians campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose. Now we have a president-elect who campaigned in tweets...but still will have to govern in prose. Donald Trump showed great skill as a campaigner, steering his campaign past a slew of professional politicians who underestimated him at every turn.
Cooperation between the President and Congress should be far more assured than in the last six years. But the commitments and promises made during the campaign will be very hard to carry out. As hard as the campaign might have been and the transition is proving to be, Donald Trump's challenges are really just beginning. Governing after a toxic election in which the results awarded him an ambiguous national mandate — his opponent, after all, got more votes — will require finesse, a clear-eyed view of his role in the world, and no small amount of luck.