In the pantheon of political attacks on sitting legislators, probably none is more damaging than the charge that they’ve lost touch with the people back home. If they’re in Congress, it’s usually couched as having caught “Potomac Fever;” and in a state legislature, it’s that they don’t care about the views of the people who put them in office.
The ranks of ex-legislators are filled with people who faced this accusation. Even Abe Lincoln, who served a single term in Congress, was accused as a freshman of having lost touch with the voters in Illinois after he questioned President James K. Polk on his motives and reasoning for the Mexican War.
To be sure, there are times when a representative really does fall prey to the seductions of life in the national or state capital, becoming so absorbed in the scene there that he or she forgets constituents’ concerns and needs. Far more often, though, the accusation gets leveled against politicians because, over their time in office, they learn that policy issues are not as straightforward as they might seem from ground level.
Take what happens to members of Congress. Pretty much as soon as they arrive in Washington, D.C., they begin to meet national leaders — in politics, in business, and in the media. They hear the testimony of experts from every corner of the country — or at least learn about their thinking from staff. In a sense, for those members who care enough about their jobs to be curious about the policy matters confronting them, Congress becomes a kind of university for learning quickly about national issues.
Just as important, representatives find that their views are challenged constantly and that they have to defend them — not just in front of a friendly hometown audience but also to skeptics in the other party or in the media. Though there are certainly media personalities these days who are sympathetic to politicians of the same ideological bent, for the most part reporters in D.C. and in state capitals are aggressive and well-informed, and try not to take platitudes for answers.
I can tell you from personal experience that in the process of talking to colleagues, the media, experts, party leaders, lobbyists, and the broad range of ordinary Americans you get exposed to when in office, your views get refined. Unless you’re closed-minded, you come to see issues from different perspectives. Sometimes you even change your mind, though it’s also possible to become even more entrenched in your views.
All of this is part of representative democracy, a sort of educational process that takes place among members, between members and constituents, and between members and all the other influences that come to bear on them. I’ll be honest, I don’t think we should criticize our representatives for exposing themselves to these influences. It’s not just that they can’t avoid it, it’s that they owe it to themselves and to us to become as well-informed as possible. After all, our legislators have twin obligations: to learn from their constituents and also to educate their constituents. This constant democratic dialogue is at the heart of representative government.
The challenge, of course, is to absorb this information and still avoid the charge that you have lost touch. It’s a constant tension in office, and it’s impossible to sidestep in a representative democracy. A legislator runs into some heady people and ideas in Washington and the state capitals and these influences can be compelling. That’s especially because in order to contribute more to the national or statewide debate, a lawmaker has to take them into account. In short, he or she has to pursue re-election at home, while also pursuing policymaking in the national or state legislature. Trying to get the balance right is one of the toughest jobs a legislator faces.
Lee Hamilton, 91, 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.