If there’s a theme that sets this political season apart, it’s the voters’ utter disdain for most of the people who practice politics. They’re fed up with politicians, they’ve lost faith and confidence in the political elite, and they don’t believe that the realm where politicians ply their craft – government – works.
There are many legitimate reasons for these people to be turned off by the way politics has been practiced and to be discouraged by the way the political system appears to work. But I’d argue that if you’re hell-bent on shaking up the system, you also need to understand it – and understand that certain features are likely to persist no matter how hard you try to change them.
The first is that it is very hard to make our representative democracy work. We make progress incrementally, over years if not generations. So we have to approach politics with great patience. Our system is designed to discourage the temptation to rush to judgment; it’s a system that places a premium on including as many voices as possible, which takes time in a complicated country.
Many people are also turned off by the deal-making that lies at the heart of our system – the negotiation and compromise needed to resolve the clash of ideas and aspirations that inevitably occurs in a free society.
But politicians who insist on purity impede solutions. There should be a healthy degree of tension between idealism and realism, but we have to find pragmatic ways to bridge the two. It can be difficult to reach agreement on complicated issues, but it’s necessary to keep the country from coming apart.
We cannot look to government to solve all our problems.We live in an era when government faces many problems that are simply beyond the reach of government. Increasingly, citizens must step forward and fill the void. We may well be moving into what might be called “the century of the citizen.” Our lives and our communities can be improved by citizen action. Indeed, unless citizens boost their involvement and contributions, many of our problems will not be solved.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.