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Will the U.S. keep its democratic republic?

- October 6, 2017
Elise Martinez, then 2, with her father at the Lincoln Memorial in April 2012. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

For 14 weeks, the Monkey Cage has presented episodes of Founding Principles, a series of short videos designed to explain American government and how it works — in theory and in practice. Things kicked off with the structure of the government (Congress, the presidency and the courts) before we turned to thinking about public opinion, the media and elections — both the structure of our electoral system and voter behavior — and citizens’ broader political involvement.

Then the focus shifted to policymaking, including the legislative process, the way policies are implemented through the bureaucracy, and how the civil liberties in the Bill of Rights and the history of civil rights have shaped not just American policy but the American polity.

We’ve now reached our concluding episode. But last is, of course, not least.

The series goes out with some fun and games, including a “Top 6” countdown of key things to remember about the U.S. government. A hint: It’s always a good idea to catch up on the Federalist Papers. From the separation of powers to the mischiefs of faction, this episode reminds us (as the late and great James Q. Wilson liked to say) that American politics is a bar fight, not a prize fight. Things are hard to change, as tax reformers and gun-control advocates are discovering anew this week. But change does happen. The system doesn’t just have stability, it has energy, too. As the first Federalist Paper reminds us, “The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.”

It’s easy to complain about the American government, and people certainly do. Alexander Hamilton, in the very last Federalist Paper, said, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.” The Constitution was no exception. But Hamilton added that “the system, though it may not be perfect in every part, is, upon the whole, a good one … the best which our political situation, habits, and opinions will admit.” The framers had built, Benjamin Franklin famously said, “a republic — if you can keep it.”

If we are to keep it, all of us need to live up to the challenges of self-governance. That means both activism and compromise, taking our responsibilities as seriously as our rights. In the end, the American system requires that we work together if it is to work at all.