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. 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 Baines Johnson ran on a platform that we could successfully wage a war on poverty — and was elected. It seems inconceivable now that a politician would be so bold and so naïve as to propose such a thing. Americans today have little confidence in government’s ability to deliver.
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. Politics has shifted from low-intensity conflict to big business — and very serious business, at that.
Meanwhile, the sharp polarization that marks our politics today has flourished. We have always had partisanship, but today it penetrates everything — the electorate, political parties, legislatures, Congress, and the White House.
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.
This has all made the work of politics and governing more difficult. The basic building blocks of politics — gathering facts, deliberating on next steps, finding common ground — are charged in their own right — subject to partisan attack. 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.
Plenty of politicians still 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 have 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 have lost ground.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, representing a district in south central Indiana.