The Ten Commandments of Citizenship (789 words)

By Lee H. Hamilton

This presidential election, if you believe the polls and the rhetoric, is about change in Washington. Both candidates promise it, while voters clamor for it. It is the cause of the moment.

Since being a responsible citizen takes commitment, here are some precepts to follow if you want to be effective — what I call the “Ten Commandments of Citizenship”:

Vote. This is the most basic step democracy asks of us. Don’t buy the argument that it doesn’t matter

Be informed. To be a knowledgeable voter, you need to know what candidates actually stand for, not just what their ads or their opponents’ ads say. Read about the issues that confront your community and our nation as a whole

Communicate with your representatives. Representative democracy is a dialogue between elected officials and citizens — that dialogue lies at the heart of our system

Participate in groups that share your views and can advance your interests. This one’s simple: In a democracy, people tend to be more effective when they work together rather than acting as individuals. By joining and working with the ones you think best reflect your views, you amplify your beliefs and strengthen the dialogue of democracy.

Get involved locally to improve your community. You know more about your community’s strengths and weaknesses than anyone living outside it. Identify its problems and work to correct them. Involvement is the best antidote I know to cynicism.

Educate your family, and make sure that local schools are educating students, about their responsibilities as citizens. As a society, we’re not as good as we should be at encouraging young people to get involved in political life.

Understand that we must work to build consensus in a huge, diverse country. This means we have to work through our differences not by hammering on the other side, but by bringing people together through the arts of dialogue, accommodation, compromise, and consensus-building.

Understand that our representative democracy works slowly. There’s a reason for this: it is so that all sides can be heard, and so that we avoid the costly mistakes produced by haste

Understand that our system is not perfect, but has served the nation well. Democracy is a process designed to give people a voice in how they are governed. It’s not perfect — far too many people feel voiceless, and polls in recent years suggest that unsettling numbers believe the system is broken. And our system offers no guarantee that you’ll get what you want. Yet it is also true that it provides every individual an opportunity to be heard and to work to achieve his or her objectives, and it has served our nation well for over two centuries.

Understand that our system is not self-perpetuating; it demands our involvement to survive. Just because it has worked in the past does not mean we will have a free and successful country in the future. Being a good citizen isn’t something one does just for the heck of it; it’s critical to the success of our nation.

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.