BY LEE H. HAMILTON
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 the many Americans who respect representative democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law, there’s reason to be concerned. The president is off to a rocky start: he’s unproductive and undignified at home and derided on the world stage. Congress struggles to get its bearings. In the country at large, forces of intolerance and division are at loose on the streets and on the nightly news.
So are we in a downward spiral as a nation? Not by a long shot. Because here’s the thing to keep in mind: our institutions are far more durable than any single president or any single historical period.
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 as an institution 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, rebuking President Trump for his mysterious fascination with Vladimir Putin and his unwillingness to single out Russia for criticism.
It did so even more forcefully when Republican leaders in the Senate took the extraordinary step of holding pro forma sessions during recesses so that a Republican president could not make recess appointments and circumvent the normal Senate confirmation process – or, to be more precise, so that he could not fire the attorney general and then appoint someone who would fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The federal bureaucracy has drawn lines in the sand, too. When the president suggested that law enforcement officers should, in essence, rough up suspects, the acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration sent an email to his employees rebuking the idea. When the president announced plans to discriminate against transgender troops, the Pentagon declined to begin the process.
When two billionaire friends of the president tried to force federal regulators to bend rules in their favor, they were rebuffed by the agencies in question. There’s been real pushback by Foreign Service officers against a move to hollow out the State Department. And the courts have blocked various Trump immigration policies.
At the state and local level, there’s been similar resistance. Though some states appear ready to go along with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity’s maneuvering to shrink the vote, many are not. 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.
And it’s not just pushback: The failure by Congress and the president to make progress on funding the rebuilding or expansion of basic infrastructure has alarmed governors, mayors, and policy makers throughout state and local government, who are demanding action on infrastructure problems.
Then, of course, there are the business and other leaders who resigned from various presidential advisory boards in the wake of the president’s response to the Charlottesville clashes in early August. And the scientists, including some within the government, who are trying to draw attention to administration efforts to weaken the role of scientists in environmental regulation and climate policy.
And an aroused, watchful national media that has worked hard to shine a light on the administration’s actions and the president’s activity. And the many Americans who besieged Congress as the Senate considered repealing the Affordable Care Act.
In other words, 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.