For those of us who think and write about democracy, few things are more appealing than a book about how to make it work better. My shelves are groaning with them.
They contain a lot of good and helpful ideas. There are proposals on how to improve elections and plans for strengthening legislative bodies, judicial systems, and the rule of law. There’s a whole body of literature on how to make government and civil institutions stronger and more effective. There are ideas for buttressing the press and the public’s access to information, and schemes for improving the civic organizations, think tanks, watchdog groups and policy-focused nonprofits that make our democracy so vibrant.
But over time, I’ve concluded that as complicated as democracy’s workings might be, one thing matters above all else: effective leadership. It might not guarantee results, but without it, nothing much happens.
I saw this throughout my career in Congress, but it was most obvious in the counties and communities that made up my district. What struck me over and over was the difference that good leadership — both within and outside government — could make.
For instance, we now have fairly elaborate programs for the education of special-needs children. In my own state of Indiana, and in many others, this was not true a relatively short while ago. But over the years, parents, teachers, school leaders and others recognized the need, stepped forward, and pressed for change at every level from the school board to Congress.
Similarly, managing water resources has been an enormous challenge — dealing with floods when there’s too much and drought when there’s too little is a pressing matter in both rural and urban areas. But over the years, I’ve watched countless local leaders do the hard and sometimes tedious work of developing watershed programs. Our water supply today is far better managed than it used to be.