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Political engagement 
makes government better

Political engagement 
makes government better

March 1, 2017 at 12:00am

By Kevin Evans

Kevin Evans is a professor of political science in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. He teaches and writes on issues related to conflict and cooperation between the branches of American government and the institutional development of the presidency.


Kevin Evans

Interpreting the 2016 presidential elections has been a very difficult task. The nastiness, conflict and misinformation have been disheartening. And while most would agree that the volume and intensity of vitriol have been unprecedented, the history of presidential elections is littered with plenty of ugliness. The death of Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, is often attributed, at least in part, to the personal attacks levied against the Jacksons in 1828; the North and South went to war with one another soon after the election of 1860; and Grover Cleveland often heard chants of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” as his political opponents sought to discredit him with an alleged illicit relationship and pregnancy cover-up in 1884. We are no strangers to difficult elections. 

Despite these bitter contests, the country has always found a way to move forward. Our hope then should not lie in a belief that we all need to come together in agreement. Instead, our hope should be rooted in the robustness of our institutions—institutions that are specifically designed to leverage our differences, self interest and policy conflict for the public good.

In my Introduction to American Government class, I spend a great deal of time discussing Federalist 10 and Federalist 51. The Federalist Papers were a series of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay urging the citizens of New York to ratify the U.S. Constitution. These two texts provide the theoretical framework for understanding how our system of government is supposed to function and “control the violence of faction.” Factions, or groups of citizens pursuing their “common impulse of passion” that are “adverse to the rights of other citizens,” are a problem in Madison’s eyes because they potentially create chaos and tyranny. Madison felt that factions generated “instability, injustice and confusion,” which were “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Yet, Madison did not shy away from the intense conflict and problems brought about by factions. In Federalist 10, he argues that the solution is to “take in a greater variety of parties and interests.” In other words, a large, diverse republic that brings conflict into government can pit factions and ambitions against one another and, to some extent, diffuse them.

Given the sustained durability of our institutions today, that scheme appears to have worked fairly well. One of the problems of the system, however, is that it relies heavily on Madison’s inaccurate view of human nature. Madison felt that citizens would be passionate about politics and actively seek out their factional interests. Yet, decades and decades of political science research shows that the average person is not deeply engaged in politics. Many do not take the time to learn about the issues of the day, and still others abstain from political participation altogether. Our system is designed to function best when citizens are seeking out their self-interest in government and actively dangling the keys to political office in front of their representatives to enforce representation.

I hope our most recent election will spur citizens to more actively engage in politics. The foundations of our system of government do not hold up very well if we do not push our representatives to actually represent us. Regardless of whom you voted for in November, passionately pursuing your interests in government is the best way for the system to function as intended. Democracy is about much more than elections, and we cannot go back into hibernation for another four years.

So, call your member of Congress, donate to your favorite interest group, sit through a city council meeting and fight for meaningful reforms. While we often feel that the political parties do not represent us very well, we do not always participate in meaningful ways to try and transform them. (I am guilty of that, too!) The simple truth is that party organizations have a wide-open door at the local level, but typically activists are the only ones willing to pour in the time and effort. If more people walk through that door, perhaps our parties will become something better as well. In the end, our politics cannot change for the better unless we seriously engage.