For the most part, we Americans value expertise. We want our physicians to possess knowledge and experience. We want our lawyers to know the law inside out. We want our clergymen, our engineers, our farmers to bring the kind of proficiency and skill to their work that comes only with familiarity and practice.
So why is it that the more expertise politicians gain in their field, the more we deride them?
I’ve been involved in politics for most of my life. I’m a politician. I’ve had more than a few people refuse to shake my hand because they believed it might somehow taint them. Politicians, many Americans believe, are looking out for themselves, are beholden to special interests and party leaders, and are incapable of working for the common good.
True enough, politicians often disappoint us, frustrate us, even anger us. They make mistakes. But here’s the thing: We cannot solve our problems at any level – local, state or federal – without skilled politicians. They are indispensable to the system. You might say they are the system. I’ve had a good vantage point to observe successful American politicians over the decades, and I’ve come to believe the craft of politics requires certain qualities. Not every politician possesses them, but the good ones – and believe it or not there are plenty of good politicians – strive to attain those qualities.
First, they’re attuned to the moods of the people and to shifts in public opinion. But while understanding and representing the public will, they adhere to certain beliefs. Most importantly, they have faith in this country and a vision for its future.
They also know that progress will not come easily. They understand they’ll face setbacks, failure and hardship. But they persevere in the American way of governing because it can make a lot of things possible. They search for a path forward, and ways to remedy problems.
Good politicians are articulate, are able to influence and even inspire others. But they are also pragmatic. They pursue the perfect, but most know they won’t get there, and must be satisfied with incremental progress. They are willing to compromise because a partial victory is sometimes the only path forward.
Politicians are comfortable holding authority and responsibility, and because they recognize that they share these burdens with others, they respect their colleagues. They understand the dynamics of politics – that neither enemies nor allies are permanent; that a foe one day might be a friend the next.
And while they know the value of coming together in unity, they understand that it’s rarely achievable. They expect criticism, appreciating that it comes with the territory and flows from the vitality of our democracy.
The best politicians realize that they represent everyone – that all individuals and groups in every part of the nation have to be taken into account, that many interests have to be balanced. The strength and security of America depend on all of its citizens.
The qualities that characterize effective politicians come only with time and experience. Politicians who possess them deserve the same respect we give any specialist who has acquired the knowledge, skill and insight demanded by a complicated, demanding and meaningful profession.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.