Everywhere you turn these days, you find someone insisting that Americans are fed up. They're angry at the White House, or at the government in general, or at politicians as a breed.
The fiery rallies and other signs of bubbling discontent splashed across the front pages do not appear to be mere show. As the Pew Research just reported, its latest survey found "a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government -- a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."
Anger is nothing new in American politics, but the sort of road-rage being directed at elected officials -- public servants being spat upon, threatened with death, taunted with racial slurs -- is deeply worrisome.
The Senate's sergeant-at-arms reported early in April that serious threats to members of Congress nearly tripled between the last three months of 2009 and the first three months of this year. Many Americans now seem to think nothing of dropping hints of violence in an effort to rally support.
We're better than this. The concerns being expressed -- about the reach of the federal government, the level of public spending, the right way to fix our healthcare system -- are entirely legitimate, but threats of violence and ginned-up hatred suggest a polity spinning out of control. Shrill politics undermines our ability to tackle our problems. A politics that consists of debasing, demeaning, or attempting to silence the people with whom you disagree is a sure sign of democracy in decline.
We have well over 200 years of practice now in resolving issues that arouse great passion, and only once has the system failed -- with the disastrous result, of course, being the Civil War. That great national trauma ought to be reminder enough that we Americans settle our differences through the political process. We channel our beliefs into the voting booth -- or into demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, organizing efforts, and other means of peacefully advancing our points of view.
We believe that reaching practicable solutions often means finding areas of common ground with our political opponents. We recognize that in a democracy, no judgment is final, but merely an invitation to the next round of debate. Whether we win or lose, we respect the outcomes of elections, of legislative battles, of the political process -- and we redouble our efforts on behalf of our views.
"Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy," Bill Clinton recently commented in The New York Times. "No one is right all the time."
But there is, after all, a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician -- even robustly -- and threatening violence if your demands are not met.
Our challenge as citizens is to recognize the line between these two approaches. This has gotten more difficult of late, as we now live in world in which one can choose never to read or listen to a word with which one disagrees -- in fact, as New York Times editor Bill Keller recently put it, in today's media, "it is possible for people to feel fully informed without ever encountering an opinion that contradicts their prejudices."
Communications technology has made it easier for inciting rhetoric to spread rapidly, get amplified by public hotheads, and be taken seriously by people on the verge of losing control.
This is not a happy state of affairs for our democracy, which at a minimum counts on respect for one's adversaries and an electorate capable of discriminating judgment -- the ability to tell fiction from fact, spin from analysis, partisan rhetoric from consensus-seeking, and perhaps above all, incitement from legitimate criticism.
In the hyper-partisan atmosphere that prevails today, our responsibilities as citizens are even more difficult. We cannot always trust political leaders to steer the body politic in fruitful -- as opposed to divisive and inflammatory -- directions. It becomes our job to calm things down, understand the issues before us, and insist that our elected officials seek common ground with those on the other side of the aisle as they focus on tangible and pragmatic policy-making.
This would go a long way toward toning down our out-of-control public discourse, and toward nudging our democracy back onto the path that made it great.
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.