By Lee H. Hamilton
You know who I feel sorry for? Today’s politicians.
You’ll laugh at this, but hear me out. This is a very tough time to be a politician—whether running for office or trying to lead while holding office. The people who have undertaken to represent us face circumstances that make campaigning and governing unusually challenging right now.
For starters, our political discourse, from city councils to state legislatures to Congress, is less forgiving than it was a generation ago. Political opponents are no longer just people with whom we happen to disagree—they’re people who need to be shamed into silence. The extent to which politicians today genuinely distrust the other side is something new in our politics. It makes progress on the issues of the day extremely complicated.
This is exacerbated by politicians’ awareness that voters have lost confidence in our traditional political leadership and are searching hard 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. For starters, we have a society that is deeply concerned about economic insecurity; as the Pew Research Center reported recently, the American middle class is in trouble and no longer in the majority.
You can add to this the fear of terrorism and a deeply unsettled view of the major changes taking place in American society: the rise of big data and its attendant loss of privacy; migration flows; tensions over diversity, gender and race; changing religious patterns; the decline of the traditional, objective media. America today is an uneasy place, and we see this reflected in voters’ frustration and pessimism.
Voters are just now starting to hold candidates up to the standards of the offices they seek; as they do, the unsettled political environment in which we find ourselves will grow a bit less uncertain. But the long-term issues, and the fears and uncertainty and the forces driving them, won’t have gone away—which is why I feel great sympathy for politicians at the moment. 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 by the voters or by the loudest voices in their own parties. Yet that is precisely what many politicians recognize our country needs.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.