By Lee H. Hamilton
Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is, yes, we do. But we have to exercise it.
I don’t just mean going to a town hall meeting and yelling, or shooting off a letter or email. I mean making an appointment to sit down with your representative — in his or her office, at a cafe in the district, or wherever else you can meet — and holding a real conversation. We don’t do this often enough in our country.
The heart of a representative democracy does not lie in its electorate, or even its elected officials. It rests in the communication between them, in the give and take that allows each to understand the other. Over my years in office I noticed a few things about how to make this conversation more fruitful and effective, and, for what it’s worth, I pass them along.
First, you want to keep the discussion respectful and polite. Incivility and confrontation are counter-productive. Explain how the issues affect you personally and make it clear that you’re seeking to establish ongoing communication, not just a “one and done” meeting. If your representative comes to respect you because of your approach and your knowledge, that’s an important step forward in expanding your influence.
This next part may seem daunting, but it shouldn’t be: Do your homework. You’ll be far more effective if you’re well-informed about the core facts on the issues and about the person you’re speaking to: his or her party, length of service, committees, interests, views, ratings and priorities.
Understand that legislators deal with many challenging relationships: voters, donors, constituents, interest groups, party officials, congressional or legislative leadership, governors and presidents, and an array of others. So, listen carefully and ask a lot of questions, and get clarity about where your representative stands on your issues and why.
If you engage in this fashion with your representatives on a regular basis, I think you’ll have reason to be satisfied that you’re stepping up to your responsibilities and raising your effectiveness as a citizen. And if conversations of this quality are multiplied across the country, it really will improve the quality of our representative democracy and contribute to the direction and success of our country.
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.