By Lee H. Hamilton
I’ve had a number of conversations recently that convince me our country is divided into two political camps separated by a deep and uncomfortably wide gap. No, I’m not talking about liberals and conservatives, or pro- and anti-Trump voters. I’m talking about people who believe in politics and our political system, and people who don’t.
I’ve found this latter view expressed most frequently among young people. I’ve spent some uncomfortable hours serving as a human pincushion for their pointed barbs about the system they’ve grown up in.
They doubt our political institutions can be made to work, are suspicious of elected officials in general, and don’t believe that our democratic institutions can solve the problems faced by the country or help them as individuals. They’re disheartened by political polarization, by the dominant and excessive role of money in the process, and by the seemingly impregnable influence of special interests on the course of policy.
They’re convinced that people in power place their own interests ahead of the country’s. They certainly don’t see politics as an uplifting pursuit; I hear the word “messy” a lot, not as an objectively descriptive term, but as an expression of ethical disapproval.
They have a point. Yet I still consider politics a worthy profession. It can be pursued in a manner that deserves respect, even admiration. Sure, politics is “messy,” but not because it’s tainted or morally bankrupt. It’s messy because it often reflects deep-seated disagreements that are hard to resolve, with merit on both sides.
Politics is rarely a struggle between good and evil; it’s how we Americans try to make the country work better. It’s a means of resolving our differences through dialogue and compromise, rather than through ideological battle or pitched warfare.
So I find myself wondering how those of my persuasion might win these young people over. Discourse matters, obviously. Tolerance of others’ views does, too. And I consider the 240 years of our history, despite all the obvious blemishes, to make a pretty good case for the political system’s accomplishments. Above all, we have to encourage young people’s engagement with the problems we confront.
Those of us who believe in the system must shoulder the burden of persuasion. If we lose the argument and the next generation turns away, we face dangers and risks — chaos, authoritarianism — that are far worse than what we face now.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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.