For those of us who think and write about democracy, few things are more appealing than a book about how to make it work better. My shelves groan with them. They contain a lot of good and helpful ideas for how to make government and civil institutions stronger and more effective.
But over time, I’ve concluded that as complicated as democracy’s workings might be, one thing matters above all else: effective leadership. It might not guarantee results, but without it, nothing much happens.
I saw this throughout my career in Congress, but it was most obvious in the counties and communities that made up my district. What struck me over and over was the difference that good leadership — both within and outside government — could make.
For instance, we now have fairly elaborate programs for the education of special-needs children because over the years, parents, teachers, school leaders and others recognized the need, stepped forward, and pressed for change. Same with managing our water resources, strengthening local health-care facilities, and building effective local law-enforcement systems. Strong leadership matters: to quality of life, to how well communities respond to challenges, and to how vital our communities are.
That’s why communities pay so much attention to leadership development — to identifying and training young leaders who can make a difference to the places they live. Strong, capable, determined leadership provides the energy that improves the quality of life in a community and breathes life into our representative democracy.
One of the eternally refreshing gifts of our representative democracy is that it encourages people to solve problems in their community — to remember, as the saying goes, that democracy is not a spectator sport. Maybe they love where they live and want to make it better; maybe they have a child with special needs who is not being served well by the schools; perhaps they know in their hearts that they can do a better job than the people in charge right now. Whichever it is, people step forward — often out of nowhere — to take matters in hand. That’s what moves us forward as a society.
“I believe in Democracy because it releases the energies of every human being,” Woodrow Wilson said. It is the great paradox of representative democracy: we are free to remain passive, but we can’t make progress unless skillful, can-do people recognize that with freedom comes the responsibility to lead.
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.