I still remember a question I got years ago. It was at a public meeting in southern Indiana, where a young woman commented that I’d traveled throughout the US and wanted to know: What was my impression of Americans? I didn’t even hesitate: The American people are fundamentally decent, I told her.
Why even mention this? Because at the moment, we live in a country where a lot of Americans don’t believe it. They think fellow citizens and public officials they don’t agree with are at best misguided and at worst, evil.
I don’t think this happened by accident. There are powerful forces working to divide us. Media companies and political commentators make money by putting out divisive information. Politicians benefit by treating the other side as the enemy. Russia and China sow the seeds of division in our country so they can make our system of democracy look bad.
There’s an antidote for this, but it’s not going to be easy: All of us, ordinary citizens and politicians alike, have to restore a belief in the importance of the common good – to ask ourselves what’s good for the country as a whole.
I know what you’re going to say: There isn’t any single definition of “the common good,” so how can we possibly agree on one? And here’s my response: This country was designed to allow us to debate the question. The common good in America is the opportunity to define the common good.
That’s why the threats of violence and extreme behavior these days are so un-American. Our institutions evolved over centuries to allow us to overcome divisions and compromise in the interest of progress. When elections officials can’t do their jobs – or when ordinary citizens are afraid to step forward – then our mechanisms for agreeing on the common good break.
Yet there is plenty of agreement to be found. Let’s go back to that question at the beginning. Americans, no matter their political stripe, support the enduring values of the country, like striving for a more perfect union and pushing to correct things they think are wrong. They want to be good citizens, useful to their communities.
These are the qualities that have stood Americans in good stead through trying times in our past. And, I believe, they’re the qualities that will help us get past this period of extreme divisiveness.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.