When you look at what’s going on in Washington, D.C., it’s easy to get depressed about the state of our democracy. Democrats see the Republicans in Congress as willfully obstructionist because they have tried to block President Barack Obama’s agenda at every turn. Republicans accuse the president of violating the Constitution because he has so aggressively used his executive powers to circumvent his opponents in Congress.

My point today is not to take sides in that argument but only to stress that nobody is happy about what’s going on in Washington. And it’s not likely to get better any time soon. Our national institutions are designed to produce deadlock unless there is a broad consensus about what to do.

And, on the big questions, there is no consensus: a lot of people favor cutting the government; a lot of other people favor expanding its role. Since that’s not likely to change soon, we can expect more stalemate, more lurching from crisis to crisis, and more unilateral assertions of presidential authority, regardless of who wins the election in 2016. That’s all deeply depressing.

Look away from Washington, however, and you will find a lot to make you optimistic about, and even proud of, our national experiment in democratic self-government. To see the spirit of democracy in action, all you have to do look around at your neighbors and other people wherever you find them gathered together in a crowd at a public event.

This thought occurred to me last weekend, when I was at the YMCA state swim meet with my family. This is a huge event. Hundreds of kids from around the state participate; they come with hundreds of parents, eager to watch the swim races; and just about the whole thing is run by volunteers. And the whole thing went off — mostly — without a hitch.

You may take it for granted that, where there are more people than seats, folks would stand in an orderly line (some of them for more than an hour) to buy their tickets, but it’s actually quite impressive. It means that we all pretty much accept that first-come first-served is the fair way to distribute the tickets, and that we’re all willing to put up with some inconvenience and risk missing out on something we care about because it’s more important to treat other people fairly.

Standing in line is not a universal phenomenon. Travel abroad, and you’ll find yourself in countries where there are no lines, only disorderly scrums where the rule is that the one with the sharpest elbows is the first person served.

It can be easy not to notice, because we are so used to living in a society with lots of community events — kids’ sports leagues, community concerts and other performances, events such as the art walk or the Mid-Maine Film Festival, or the Taste of Greater Waterville — but none of those events could ever take place without volunteers to run them.

Volunteering is an expression of public spiritedness and of trust and faith in one’s community. That is not to say that volunteering isn’t rewarding; of course it is. But there is also an element of sacrifice in it as well. All those volunteer officials at the swim meet probably had lots of other things they could have been doing in the many hours they spent getting trained as swim officials and standing around at swim meets. And yes, I’m sure they found it rewarding, but it was also a sacrifice (and one that, as the parent of a swimmer, I appreciated).

Volunteering is also a demonstration of the power of self-government, a demonstration of what many people can accomplish when they trust and respect one another and want to cooperate for a common purpose.

Democracy is not just about having elections and designing the institutions of government to carry out the people’s wishes. Those things are absolutely important, and you cannot have a free government where the government isn’t answerable to the people.

But simply writing a constitution and holding an election is not enough to make a country democratic. The institutions of self-government can take root and thrive in societies only where the people already respect one another and are already willing to work together to make their communities better places.

In that deep sense, America remains profoundly democratic. If you want to see for yourself, all you have to do is find a community event that interests you and volunteer.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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