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OPINION: We can fix our broken politics

By Lee Hamilton

Date:

Americans are fed up with politics. That’s the obvious conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which found many of us have “unrelentingly negative” views of politics and elected officials.

It’s understandable that people are discouraged. There are plenty of reasons to feel that way. I’m not especially alarmed at the findings of the survey, however. The key thing is that we maintain an interest in improving our broken politics. That’s critically important.

If the American people were to get so turned off by politics that they refuse to participate, that would be a real problem for our democracy. Fortunately, there’s evidence that we haven’t reached that point.

Americans have long had a healthy skepticism about political power and those who wield it, but the Pew survey suggests distrust has reached new heights. Some 65 percent of those questioned said thinking about politics left them exhausted. More than half indicated it made them angry. Only a few said it made them hopeful or excited.

Asked to describe U.S. politics in one word, many came up with “divisive,” “corrupt,” or “chaotic.” Asked to identify the strong points of our politics, more than half couldn’t come up with anything.

It’s obvious that our politics are going through a difficult time. Congress seems dysfunctional, struggling to pass spending bills to keep the government operating. A single senator has blocked promotions for hundreds of military officers. Election campaigns are filled with personal attacks. Divisions threaten our support for allies, including Ukraine, a rejection of the adage that politics stops at the water’s edge.

Partisanship has reached new heights, with Democrats and Republicans seeming to inhabit separate worlds. The one thing both sides agree on is that our politics aren’t working.

Dissatisfaction with politics crosses political, social, and demographic lines, according to the Pew survey. It is shared by White, Black, Asian, and Hispanic adults. It affects old people as well as young people.

Nearly nine out of 10 Americans say politicians are more focused on fighting each other than on solving problems. Some 28 percent distrust both major parties, the highest figure in nearly 30 years. It’s common to hear people say that neither party cares about ordinary people. Americans distrust the executive and legislative branches of government, and a majority have a dim view of the Supreme Court.

Americans are rightly suspicious of the growing role that money plays in politics. About 85 percent said that the cost of election campaigns keeps good candidates from running and that special interests have too much influence on politicians. Only about a quarter of the people rate the quality of political candidates as very or somewhat good, down 20 percentage points in the past five years.

You might expect this distrust and discouragement would cause Americans to disengage from politics. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

The elections of 2018, 2020, and 2022 featured some of the highest voter turnout rates in decades. About two-thirds of eligible adults voted in 2020, the highest rate for a national election since 1900. Those are encouraging signs.

And the public has ideas for improving our politics. In the Pew survey, majorities favored limits on campaign contributions and spending. The survey found broad support for term limits on members of Congress and for age limits on elected and appointed officials, including Supreme Court justices. Elections in November in Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia drew strong interest and participation. In another hopeful sign, more young people have been running for office — and often winning.

We Americans have always been an optimistic and forward-looking people, confident in our ability to solve problems and make progress. We’re right to be unhappy with the condition of our politics, but we have the power and the ability to make our politics better.        


Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana. 

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