08/08/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

Crisis of Self-Government

A July 2013 Gallup Poll asked Americans, "Do you approve of the way Congress is handling its job?" Only 15% of Americans approved. Historically, Americans have been skeptical of government, and that has not changed in the 21st century. It is not uncommon for government officials to receive poor marks. What is different this time, however, is that congressional approval ratings have been running at historically low levels -- at or below 30% -- consistently for most of the last five years. Clearly, the American people are frustrated and it appears that one of the principal issues is partisanship.

Partisan infighting in the Congress and among Americans themselves has a long history. The political contest between Federalists and Democratic Republicans at the turn of the nineteenth century was fierce. These early political parties differed on the economy, the role of federal government, freedom of the press, military preparedness, as well as foreign policy. Both sides sponsored newspapers to slander opponents. Hyperbole fueled animosity, and in the House of Representatives, Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyons duked it out with canes and fire tongs. For much of the nineteenth century, in fact, members of Congress commonly went onto the floor of the House or Senate armed with knives and pocket pistols. Perhaps the halls of Congress have actually become more civil over time.

Partisan contests surged often during our history. During Andrew Jackson's administration, tariffs, nullification, and the national bank fueled the fire. Maintaining and expanding slavery was the partisan sectional contest that tainted the whole of the antebellum period. And partisan rancor has continued for more than two centuries over issues like immigration, civil rights, labor relations, social programs, foreign policy, and more. It is easy at these times to blame the politicians, but is it really Congress, or is it American citizens, who fuels partisanship?

The House of Representatives was designed to be a microcosm of the population -- a popular assembly elected every two years and susceptible to shifts and swings in popular opinion. The Senate was originally more staid, appointed by state governments and less responsive to our democratic tendencies. That changed in 1912, when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution provided for the popular election of senators. The Congress, more than any other part of government, represents "We the People."

We citizens like to blame the problems of representative government on special-interest lobbyists, political action committees, and the cost of campaigning. But the Pew Research Center's report Trends in American Values: 1987-2012 suggests that partisanship runs deeper than that. Partisanship is fueled by the beliefs and actions of individual American citizens in communities across the country. Consequently, if we want a less partisan atmosphere in Congress, it is incumbent on us -- individual citizens -- to step forward and improve the quality of the debate. We can create a new debate, one that recognizes our differences but also celebrates the shared values that every American citizen holds as sacred as they do the idea of America itself.

At Colonial Williamsburg this month, a group of young Virginia public servants are revitalizing that spirit of productive debate. The Sorensen Institute's Emerging Leaders Program sponsored by Colonial Williamsburg focuses on bipartisanship and ethics in state government and provides an opportunity for a diverse group of young professionals -- representing the full spectrum of Virginia political opinion -- to collaborate across partisan lines and hone their leadership and public policymaking skills.

In his remarks to the Institute, Colin Campbell, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, observed that at the time of the American Revolution, citizens found themselves in confusing and frustrating circumstances and facing an uncertain, dangerous future. Still, this first generation of Americans discovered the strength of character to shape the institutions of self-government. Those institutions are as imperfect as the humans who created them and who have struggled to maintain them throughout our history. Despite the struggle, is there any American citizen willing to foreswear self-government for some other authority?

Today, We the People are losing confidence in our institutions. As Mr. Campbell reminded these emerging leaders, it will take considerable effort to create a path forward. But the treasure of American self-government is too precious to take for granted, and far too precious to discard. It will take people -- individual citizens -- like those gathered at Colonial Williamsburg for the Sorensen Institute's Emerging Leaders Program -- to build that future. Self-government is hard work. Self-government is collaborative work. Self-government is the responsibility of each citizen. Reviving genuine self-government requires that we each shoulder the responsibility of citizens. It is our inheritance. It is our legacy.