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Democracy in Crisis

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Americans are passionate about representative democracy in concept. But they are less familiar and comfortable with democracy's reality-the institutions, practices and processes that make government work. For many, there is a wide chasm between the cherished ideals of the American Constitution and the processes it prescribes. Instead of debate, compromise and conflict, Americans often perceive bickering, self-interest, equivocation and partisanship. Polls show Americans' lack of trust in government and growing frustration with the public officials elected to represent their interests. Frustration with politics often translates into avoiding the ballot box, alienating many Americans from a system designed to thrive on their involvement.

Perhaps such a negative response should not come as a surprise; the virtues of representative democracy are not always self-evident. The processes, as they take place in Congress and in state legislatures across the country, are often messy, arcane and difficult-even for insiders-to fathom.

Skepticism is a normal, healthy characteristic of a democracy. But in the quarter-century since Watergate, the effects of attack and innuendo have escalated skepticism into cynicism and distrust. The media, as principal storyteller of the political process, have exploited and, in some cases, distorted the machinations of politics to build audiences and journalistic reputations. While the lessons of civics or the rewards of involvement are occasionally trumpeted in the print and electronic media, center stage is more likely given to the sordid and sensational-often for years at a time.

Politicians themselves cannot escape blame for the souring of public trust. The widespread use of the legislature as a target in political campaigns is a significant deterrent to building the public's confidence. All too often, politicians adopt the campaign strategy of running against the political system as well as the people in it. If both an incumbent and a challenger trash the system, why shouldn't voters?

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