An interesting thing keeps happening to me. Every few days, someone — an acquaintance, a colleague, even a stranger on the street — approaches me. They ask some version of the same question: What can we do to pull ourselves out of this dark period?
For Americans who respect representative democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law, there’s reason to be concerned. But are we in a downward spiral as a nation? Not by a long shot.
History is certainly on our side. We’ve survived a civil war, two world wars, Watergate, four presidential assassinations, the packing of the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt, economic depressions and recessions, more nasty power struggles than you can count… and still the country has moved forward. You can look back and gain confidence from our history.
Or you can look around you. Congress is being tested as it rarely has in its modern history, and it’s shown a few hopeful glimmers. It did so when it passed by a huge margin its sanctions bill against Russia and when Republican leaders in the Senate took the extraordinary step of making sure a Republican president could not circumvent the normal Senate confirmation process.
The federal bureaucracy has drawn lines in the sand. When the president suggested that law enforcement officers should, in essence, rough up suspects, the acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration rebuked the idea. When the president announced plans to discriminate against transgender troops, the Pentagon declined to begin the process. On the judicial side, the courts have blocked various Trump immigration policies.
At the state and local level, California Gov. Jerry Brown and other governors and mayors took a major step when they indicated that they will still be working to address climate change even after President Trump declared the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
Then there are the business leaders who have resigned from presidential advisory boards and the scientists trying to draw attention to administration efforts to weaken the role of scientists in environmental regulation and climate policy. The national media has worked hard to shine a light on the administration’s actions and the president’s activity. And Americans besieged Congress as the Senate considered repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Our institutions — Congress, the executive branch, the courts, civil society — are being put to the test. And they’re beginning to step up. So must we all.
– Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.