Hamilton: Tough time for politicians

Lee H. Hamilton

This is a very tough time to be a politician. The women and men who’ve undertaken to represent us face circumstances that make campaigning and governing unusually challenging right now.

Not that they’ve ever been easy, at least in my lifetime. Our size, diversity, and multi-layered government structure; the number and complexity of the problems our political leaders face daily; and the divided politics of our time, which make settling on coherent policies especially challenging — make being a politician in a representative democracy a demanding job. Several features of the current political landscape make politics far more difficult to navigate.

For starters, our political discourse is less forgiving than it was a generation ago. Political opponents are no longer people with whom we happen to disagree — they’re people who need to be shamed into silence. They can’t be negotiated with, they’re unpatriotic. This rhetoric is not just calculated demonization. The extent to which politicians today genuinely distrust the other side is something new in our politics.

This is exacerbated by politicians’ awareness that voters have lost confidence in our traditional political leadership and are searching for alternatives.

Why are Americans upset, and more willing than usual to rally to outlying candidates? I don’t think there’s any great mystery. We have a society concerned about economic insecurity; as the Pew Research Center reported recently, the American middle class — for decades the anchor of economy and society — is no longer in the majority. Small wonder immigration causes so much concern.

Add to this the fear of terrorism and a deeply unsettled view of changes like the rise of big data and its attendant loss of privacy; the tensions that diversity, arguments over gender, and racial conflict all produce; the fluid patterns of religious belief and identity that have shaken many communities loose from the institutions that once moored them; the decline of the traditional, objective media. America today is an uneasy place, and we see this reflected in voters’ frustration.

With next year’s elections still almost a year away, voters are mostly just looking around. They like candidates who express their anger and resentment, but they’re just now starting to hold candidates up to the standards of the offices they seek. As they do, the unsettled political environment will grow a bit less uncertain.

But the long-term issues — the fears and uncertainty and the forces driving them — won’t have gone away. The skills we need in our political leaders, like the ability to approach those with whom they disagree with a measure of good will and an openness to negotiation and compromise, are not held in high esteem.

It’s easy for a politician to pander to anger and frustration. It’s much harder to face a roomful of disparate opinions and forge a consensus behind a solution. Yet that is precisely what many politicians recognize our country needs.

Lee Hamilton teaches at Indiana University. He was a member of the Congress for 34 years.