By Lee H. Hamilton
Despite these last few months of hot and lazy days, it’s been hard not to notice a cold political wind blowing through the country. The magazine Foreign Affairs captured it with its latest cover, a mockup of a travel poster featuring a crumbling U.S. Capitol with the tagline, “See America: Land of Decay and Dysfunction.”
Americans are clearly uneasy. In early August, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reported that a full three-quarters of those surveyed lacked confidence that the next generation would be better off—the most pessimistic results in the history of the poll.
This is a ground-shaking turnabout. Since well before I began my political career in the early 1960s, the keystone of our politics was an unflagging optimism that as Americans we could face head-on the task of improving our own and others’ lives and deliver on our responsibility to future generations. Now, that’s no longer the case.
Why not? Partly, it’s the economy: growth has been sluggish, we’re not generating enough good jobs, and the benefits of the recovery have flowed more to some than to the many. The growing awareness of a lopsided society—one in which a rising tide fails to lift all boats—has put many people in a surly mood. That problem of income inequality is joined to a host of others—from climate change to crumbling infrastructure to a world in which the forces of chaos and turmoil appear to be expanding.
Yet I think Foreign Affairs has nailed the biggest factor: the perceived dysfunction of our political system. Americans don’t expect miracles, but they do expect political leaders to make progress, and they haven’t been seeing much.
I can understand why so many people would be pessimistic, yet I don’t find myself sharing their fatalism. That’s because political moments are just that: moments. Over the long reach of our history, we’ve learned time and again that when our political leaders do focus on our challenges, speak to one another directly, and are determined to find a solution to our problems, they can overcome their differences and make progress.
There is no shortage of challenges facing the system. But I am convinced that they are no match for an aroused and determined public that recognizes we are all in this together, that we can adapt to changing circumstances, and that we should not give up on the system.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.