The question usually comes toward the end of a public meeting. Some knotty problem is being discussed, and someone in the audience will raise his or her hand and ask, “OK, so what can I do about it?”
I love that question. Not because I’ve ever answered it to my satisfaction, but because it bespeaks such a constructive outlook.
The usual advice that politicians give is to vote, work for a candidate, let your elected officials know what you think and participate in community life. This is good counsel – but only as far as it goes. With a little more time now to answer the question, I’d add a few other points.
First, it’s important that citizens appreciate how hard it is to solve problems in a representative democracy. Every issue – even a stop sign at a corner – is more complex than it appears. Understanding and appreciating the complexities is the only way to see how and where you can make progress.
It’s also vital to learn that solving problems means working with all kinds of people. It requires bringing different points of view together, developing connections to key players in your community, talking face-to-face with others who may not agree with you and communicating your ideas effectively – including to the media. It also means learning that differences can exist without personal animosity, and recognizing the common ground on which you can build agreement.
There is a key lesson that comes from trying to solve a particular problem: it tends to make you less ideological and more pragmatic. It forces you to examine the options in front of you and to figure out what resources are at hand to help you pursue them.
Politics is not a game for everyone, but there are other ways to be involved in community life. Regardless of the avenue they choose, it’s the people who step forward who refresh this country and make it stronger.
Our Constitution’s preamble begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union ....” At heart, that’s what getting involved means: shouldering the challenges, shared responsibilities and opportunities that democracy thrusts upon us as we pursue a more perfect union. That’s what I want to say to the people who ask, “What can I do about it?” The journey is hard and complicated, but it’s the most satisfying work I can imagine.
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.