Depressed About Our Country? Don't Be.

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Friday, June 23, 2006
The disheartening stream of news about our nation, from the war in Iraq to the behavior of our elected officials in Washington, has created a poisonous atmosphere around the country. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press have found not just a profound crisis of confidence in Congress and the White House, but also sour opinions about business corporations and even a slight decline in support for the U.S. military. 

Americans, as we do from time to time, are fretting about the state of the nation and wondering, "Is there any hope for this country?" 

So I'd like to take a moment to explain why the answer is an emphatic, "Of course!" All you have to do is look around to see plenty of reasons for taking heart. 

To begin, take a trip to Washington. You might find it bracing. Amid all the tourists and bureaucrats, for instance, there are also a lot of demonstrators, people who care passionately about a cause and have made the long trek to exercise their right peacefully to petition government. They are part of a healthy democracy at work, helping to fuel a national conversation that is vigorous and creative. 

Up on Capitol Hill, while you'll certainly find plenty of the finely dressed lobbyists we've been reading so much about lately, they are vastly outnumbered by the ordinary citizens streaming in to visit their members of Congress and watch the national legislature in action. Our Congress is still one of the most accessible legislative bodies on the planet. At times like this, when so many Americans feel the country is off track, that openness is one of its greatest strengths: It offers members a chance to understand what is bothering their constituents and to begin responding as best they can. 

And that is, indeed, what they are doing. For several years now, Congress has been under growing pressure to act like the independent body our Founders envisioned, and not accept blindly the arguments and rationales put forth by the executive agencies. In recent months, on everything from the NSA wiretapping imbroglio to the FBI investigation to the Dubai ports deal, congressional committees have finally stirred to life and begun questioning administration policy. 

There is still a long way to go before Capitol Hill fulfills the robust oversight role that a healthy democracy demands, but these are steps in the right direction. 

Similarly, Congress and the courts have begun weighing in on issues such as abuse of prisoners and whether torture can be a legitimate part of U.S. policy. Their involvement has been slow to take hold, but clearly the system is responding now to the legitimate concerns of the people. 

It is a reminder that, while the checks and balances written into our system may work slowly, they do work. Executive-branch behavior that a few years ago might have gone unnoticed or unchallenged no longer gets a free pass. 

Part of this is because our media remain not just free and independent, but have become far less deferential than they were in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. I still worry about the decline of investigative reporting and of close scrutinizing into the nooks and crannies of government, but I am heartened by the vigor our press has been showing of late; remember that both the furor over the NSA wiretaps and the lobbying scandal associated with Jack Abramoff began as newspaper stories. 

And the explosion of online sites dedicated to commentary and newsgathering suggests that vitality, not decrepitude, will remain the defining characteristic of the American media for a long time to come. 

Finally, the great strengths of democracy offer cause for cheer. I'm always impressed by the supply of people in this country who have the skills, talent and motivation to become involved in civic affairs and work to make their communities better. 

Elections are a key reason Congress is such a resilient institution; it refreshes itself periodically, attracting new members who, because they carry with them the hopes and cautions of the people they met on the campaign trail, bring to Capitol Hill fresh energy and perspective. 

Don't get me wrong. There's still plenty of cause for the average American to worry about the state of our system, and there is much that still needs repairing. But we are a hardy country with a strong and resilient system of government, and though our problems may be deep-seated, never doubt for a moment that they are correctable or that, given time and effort, we can muster the will and ingenuity to put them right. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)