By Lee H. Hamilton
We are living in a difficult time. Our country and its communities are deeply polarized; many Americans distrust one another as well as the government and other institutions. The novel coronavirus has deepened our problems in a way none of us imagined.
The number of Americans who have contracted Covid-19 has surpassed a million. Tens of thousands have died, and record numbers have lost their jobs. No wonder, then, people are disheartened, even discouraged. This is a stressful and challenging period, when we and our representative democracy are being tested.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. I think of a speech the Rev. Jesse Jackson gave with the theme of “keep hope alive,” and that’s what we must do. Hope is a precious commodity in human endeavors, including government and politics. We need it now as much as ever.
What gives us hope today?
First, the United States remains the world’s preeminent power. We may not stand astride the world as we once did, but we are still a global leader. People in other nations look to us for leadership. I’ve experienced this scores of times, in international meetings where delegates looked to see what the U.S. would do.
The fundamentals of the U.S. economy are strong. After recovering from the 2007-08 recession, we experienced a remarkable period of economic growth. The pandemic has brought a setback, of course, but there is strength and growing vitality in America.
Even with all our problems, a strong strain of optimism is part of the national character. We may not agree about politics, our leaders or the direction of our country, but dig beneath the surface and most Americans are appreciative of our history and proud to be Americans. They do not want to trade places with the citizens of any other country.
Moreover, Americans are talented and resilient.
I’ve traveled across this country many times, and I’ve met with countless groups and individuals; and in those meetings I’ve been repeatedly impressed with the wealth of talented people I’ve encountered. You find them in all walks of life: academia, business, labor, and the worlds of sports, arts and culture. In unexpected settings, I’ve met knowledgeable citizens who can argue the finer points of domestic politics and foreign policy.
Energetic discussion and deliberation on issues of public concern is a defining feature of American life. With the internet, all Americans have access to vast amounts of information about topics that interest them, and they use that information skillfully.
Finally, our system of federalism is again showing its strength. In the current public health crisis, governors and mayors have stepped up to lead. And it’s not just government where this occurs: individuals and community groups of all kinds, public and private, are meeting our challenges.
Progress is never linear, and the Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that there will always be setbacks. But they will not override our hopes and actions.
Nearly 200 years ago, Tocqueville wrote that Americans had “a lively faith in the perfectibility of man.” That faith may be tested, but it endures.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.