A Thanksgiving toast to American democracy

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I often write a fun — well, I find it fun — Thanksgiving column about all the stuff that political junkies enjoy about politics in the U.S. With things a lot less fun at the moment, I'll risk being a little sappy. Here's an early Thanksgiving column of appreciation to those who make democracy real.

I'll start with the politicians. There are more than half a million elected officials in the U.S., from members of Congress to state legislatures to all sorts of local governments — cities, counties, school boards, various authorities and special districts and what have you. Just a blizzard of offices, and people to fill them. Sure, a lot of those folks don't really consider themselves politicians, but that's just fudging with definitions.

On top of the elected officials, there are lots of people serving on all sorts of government and quasi-government advisory boards or special committees or other bodies. Governing in the U.S., especially at the local level, is often very much "by the people" rather than by bureaucrats. Then there are those who write to their elected officials; who testify at various hearings and meetings; who get involved in interest groups and try to influence governments at various levels. All that is self-government too.

Up next? Elections, and those who get involved in them by doing more than just voting. Activists, large and small donors, campaign professionals, formal party officials and staff, people on the campaign side of organized interest groups, and more. Again, we're talking huge numbers here, especially when looked at over time.

Somewhere between governing and elections is the direct action of protests, where even more citizens find ways to get involved — the last four years were especially notable for demonstrations and other peaceful political action.

And let's not forget the "neutral" and the partisan press. Alas, local news has fallen on very hard times, and robust local democracy has suffered as a result. But this is generally not the fault of reporters and their editors, who (despite what the outgoing president says) are essential to making the republic work.

All of that, and more, makes for what can at its best be an incredibly rich, textured, participatory exercise in government by the people. Madisonian institutions can be extremely frustrating. So many veto points. So much seemingly unnecessary complexity. But the U.S. system also excels at creating initiation points, which (when they work well) make it far easier to get involved than in systems that are more streamlined and hierarchical.

Of course, over the history of the nation, all of this has rarely worked at its best, and often hasn't worked nearly well enough. Many scholars tend to agree that the U.S. wasn't much a democracy at all until 1965: It's not self-government when large groups of people are excluded from public life. To me, knowing the history of how precarious various parts of democracy have been only increases my appreciation for whatever success we've had — and for the millions of patriots who have made it possible.

I guess the point is: Democracy only exists to the extent that citizens actually take part in it. The best a constitutional system can do is to provide space for politics. It can't force people to get involved or, for that matter, prevent democracy from being eroded by those who would subvert it. And so, to those who continue to make self-government a reality in the U.S., I extend my deepest appreciation. Thank you.

1. Dave Hopkins on Republican politicians and Trump.

2. Heath Brown on the delayed transition and who it could harm within the Democratic coalition.

3. Edward Lempinen speaks with Susan D. Hyde about the election, the post-election and U.S. democracy.

4. James Wallner on the Senate majority leader's ability to affect nominations.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Claudia Sahm on what Congress needs to do for the unemployed.

6. And Matt Fuller on what congressional Republicans are thinking.

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