In the short term, it is the legislation currently before Congress that will matter most: how lawmakers change the ways Americans pay for health care; whether the federal government is able to stimulate the creation of new jobs or prevent further losses; how far the U.S. is willing to go in emission-reduction. Each of these issues is contentious and each contemplated action -- or inaction -- will have consequences that are not trivial. So how is it that if one were asked to choose which is the most important issue of the day, the correct answer would be "none of the above"?
Because democracy is not about policy but about process. Policies will change over time, and they will continue to be hotly debated, but what must remain constant is the process by which we come to decisions: not only the separation of powers and the various empowerments and constraints that delineate government's role, but the assurance that the citizen's voice will be given the most serious consideration.
If the United States is indeed "exceptional", it is not because we are full of citizens who are better than other people, but rather it is because we operate differently. Abraham Lincoln summed it up perfectly when he described our Madisonian system of lawmaking as government not only "for" the public good but also, and central to our form of government, "of" and "by" the people. Unlike members of many parliaments, those who make our national laws are required by the Constitution to be residents of the state whose constituents they have been elected to represent. It is clear, then, that when members of Congress cast their votes on the issues before them, they are to be guided by the concerns and preferences of those they represent, within the boundaries of constitutional authority, and subject to critical evaluation of the proposals being considered.