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 a long time. So I suppose I should not be surprised that I get asked a lot these days how American politics have changed over the last six decades.
A few things stand out. When I first arrived in Congress, Americans had faith in the institutions of government. President Lyndon Johnson had actually run on a platform that we could successfully wage a war on poverty — and been elected. It seems inconceivable today that a politician of prominence would be so bold and so naïve as to propose such a thing, let alone believe that we 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 war successfully waged on anything domestic seems beyond its grasp.
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? Regardless, the days of LBJ-style confidence are long gone.
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 to it, than when I began.
Voters are more demanding and want instant results. Consultants are everywhere you turn. 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 has become more aggressive. And money, of course, has become an avalanche.
Politics has shifted from low-intensity conflict to big business — and very serious business, at that.
With all this, of course, the sharp polarization that marks our politics today has flourished. We’ve always had partisanship, but today it penetrates everything: the electorate, the political parties, legislatures, Congress, and the White House.
Which has led to one of the greater ironies of this era. On the one hand, the political world is flooded with information — it used to be that one of the chief tasks of a politician and policy-maker was to gather information; today your problem is sorting through it. On the other hand, in this atmosphere deliberations are often based less on facts, experts and evidence than on partisan beliefs. In a sea of information, we’re drowning in misinformation.
Finally, the audience for politics has changed. When you spoke to the Rotary Club in southern Indiana in the 1960s, you were speaking to Rotary members in southern Indiana. Today, you could very well be speaking to the world. Whatever you say can become available everywhere in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Newsworthy events and statements that once took days to stoke a reaction today get an instantaneous — and often hot-blooded — response.
This has all 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 on next steps, finding common ground — have become charged in their own right, subject to partisan attack. Bridging our divisions over health care, taxation, immigration, the debt and deficits, and U.S. intervention abroad 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 find 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 Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.