I became active in politics in the late 1950s, got elected to Congress in 1964, and have remained engaged in one way or another every year since then. I’ve had a ringside seat for 60 years. So I suppose I should not be surprised that I’m often asked how American politics has changed.
A few things stand out. When I first arrived in Congress, Americans had faith in the institutions of government. Lyndon Johnson actually ran for president promising to wage war on poverty – and won the election. It seems inconceivable today that a politician would be bold and naive enough to propose such a thing, let alone believe he could do it.
Today, Americans have little confidence in government’s ability to deliver. And with reason: Congress can’t even pass a budget on time, and even the most routine matters get bottled up. A meaningful war on any domestic problem seems unthinkable.
We can argue about when this shift began – was it catalyzed or merely summarized by President Ronald Reagan when he famously said that government is the problem, not the solution?
The second big difference is the extreme political intensity we see all around us. Almost every facet of politics is more complicated and pursued more vigorously, with a harder edge.
Voters are more demanding and want instant results. Consultants are everywhere. Lobbyists have multiplied and become immeasurably sophisticated and effective at finding ways to get what they want. Interest groups have exploded in number and competency. The media have become more aggressive. Money smothers everything.
Politics has shifted from low-intensity conflict to big business – and very serious business at that.
With all this, the sharp polarization that defines our politics has flourished. We’ve always had partisanship, but today it penetrates everything – the electorate, the political parties, legislatures, Congress, the White House.
And so one of the great ironies of our time: On the one hand, the political world is flooded with information; on the other, deliberations today are usually based less on facts, experts and evidence than on partisan beliefs. In a sea of information, we’re drowning in misinformation.
Meanwhile, the audience for politics has changed. When I spoke to the Rotary Club in southern Indiana in the 1960s, I was speaking to Rotary members in southern Indiana. Today, I could very well be speaking to the world. Whatever you say is available everywhere in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Newsworthy events and statements that once took days to stoke a reaction now get instant and often hot-blooded response.
These changes have made the work of politics and governing much more difficult. Organizations intensively scrutinize every tiny step, and can gin up a massive response at a moment’s notice. The basic building blocks of politics – gathering facts, deliberating next steps, finding common ground – are lost in the partisan echo chamber. Bridging our divisions over health care, taxation, immigration, budget deficits and foreign policy seems ever more elusive. Plain and simple, it’s become harder to make the country work.
When I began in politics, elected officials felt a responsibility to work their way through difficult problems together. They believed that compromise and negotiation were core political values, intrinsic to our democracy and crucial to making it work for everyone. There are still plenty of politicians who believe this but also plenty who do not, who have shown they can thrive in a political environment that stacks the deck against the shared work of finding common ground.
We’ve come a long way as a country over the last six decades. But when it comes to politics as a democratic endeavor to address the nation’s challenges, we’ve lost ground.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.