By Lee H. Hamilton
When two senators recently got into a spat over whether the Boston Marathon bombings were being politicized, the news was everywhere within minutes. Reams of commentary quickly followed. In the maneuvering over gun-control legislation, every twist and turn was instantly reported and then endlessly debated. As the effects of the federal sequester start to make themselves felt, outlets in every medium — print, television, online — are carrying both the news and the inevitable partisan sniping over its meaning.
This is political reality today, and when people ask me how politics has changed since I first ran for Congress in 1964, it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Back then, when you spoke to the Rotary in a small town, you were speaking to a few members of the Rotary. Today, you might well be speaking to the world. A debate on Capitol Hill back then might or might not have made the news, but even if it did, days could go by before the rest of the country reacted. Today, the response is instantaneous, often hot-blooded, and almost inconceivably far-reaching.
It’s not just the sheer proliferation and aggressiveness of the media that have ratcheted up the intensity of political life. Almost every facet of politics is more complicated and hard-edged. Voters want instant results. Consultants are everywhere. Lobbyists have multiplied and become immeasurably sophisticated at finding ways to get what they want. Well-funded, highly organized interest groups enrich the DC region’s economy, while in the rest of the country grassroots organizations try to influence policy on every cause under the sun. All of this, in turn, has created an unending flood of money. Politics is now big business.
Perhaps because of the scrutiny that political decisions now get — and the speed with which organizations turn those decisions into fundraising opportunities — it is much harder to do the basic work of politics: finding common ground. I don’t think I’m being overly rosy in saying that a generation ago, when politicians of differing views met to hammer out their differences, they actually hammered out their differences. It was not easy, but they believed that as elected officials they had a responsibility to find their way out of difficult problems together. They understood that this usually meant accepting a solution that was less than perfect.
Today, the first words out of a politician’s mouth when presented with a new proposal are, “It doesn’t measure up.” Incremental achievements have come to be seen as shameful concessions, to be avoided if at all possible. In a Washington that is more ideological, more partisan, and less pragmatic than it used to be, the bedrock notion that politicians would come together to make the country work seems quaint. It hasn’t disappeared entirely, but it’s certainly endangered.
Which may be one reason there’s been another change I’ve seen in politics over the years. I first went to Congress at a time when Americans had faith in the institutions of government. The year I ran for office, Lyndon Johnson was campaigning for President on a platform that the country could successfully wage a war against poverty. Today, it seems inconceivable that a politician would be so bold or so naïve — it’s not just that Americans have been chastened in their ambitions in the nearly 50 years since, but that they would have very little confidence that government could deliver. Congress can’t even get a normal budget done on time. A “war” on anything seems beyond its grasp.
I don’t mean to be entirely negative. Politics’ greater intensity also has its bright spots. There are more and often better sources of information. Ordinary Americans are highly engaged, with more avenues of entry into the system. If you want to understand even the most complex issues facing Congress, it’s possible to learn about them far more easily than just a few decades ago.
Perhaps that’s something to build on. With greater public sophistication about a complex system, Americans might also show more patience with politicians trying in good faith to resolve our challenges. And if that happens, who knows? Maybe we’ll even discover that government can, in fact, successfully tackle the big problems.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.