Politicians Need To Find A Balance

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Sunday, January 6, 2008
For most of my career I've been a firm believer in the political arts, first as a member of Congress and now as an observer of politicians. The ability to read the mood of an electorate, an aptitude for building consensus among competing interests, a gift for finding just the right tack for eliciting people's agreement — these talents are indispensable to making Congress and our democracy work. 

Yet lately I've wondered whether politics as we practice it today is working as well as it should. In some ways, politicians are acting too much like politicians for the country's good. 

To understand this, let's step back for a moment and remember the difference between a representative democracy, which is the system we live in, and a straight–out, direct democracy. As it is now, we elect people to represent us and to make decisions about the issues confronting us that, ideally, will make ours a better and stronger nation. If we lived in a pure democracy, we'd be making those decisions ourselves. 

Any politician will tell you there is a great deal of wisdom and common sense to be found in the American electorate. Yet we live in a representative democracy for a reason: the men who designed our system wanted to reserve a place for deliberation, study, and thoroughgoing argument. They worried that popular majorities could be swayed by the passions of the moment or by sheer self–interest, rather than by carefully reasoned debate about where the best interests of the country might lie. 

Fast–forward to today, and you'll notice that while we still live in a representative democracy, our representatives too often seem to be guided by polls of their constituents or by the desires of the interests with which they most closely identify. 

There are times when it seems as though the one thing our system was designed to ensure — that our representatives would think hardest about what's good for the country as they weigh the issues before them — is the last thing on their minds. 

Indeed, politicians appear to be obsessed with every nuance of public opinion and the needs and desires of the various interests that fund their campaigns. True, it's how they get elected and then re–elected, but it also sets up an unhealthy political dynamic. Those running for office tend to advance policy ideas that promise them electoral victory; they give answers that are carefully calibrated to appeal to the politics of the moment, pushing the country's long–term interests aside; and so they give in to partisanship and give less attention to negotiation, bargaining, and compromise. 

American voters, accustomed to having politicians cater to their desires, let their personal interests dictate the kind of government they want to see and so become ever more dependent on Washington while professing to despise politicians for pandering to them. 

What we need are politicians who understand their responsibility both to reflect the popular will and to educate and lead the public — who, in essence, recognize that in a representative democracy, the people elect them to use their judgment and steer by their own convictions. 

Good politicians see their job as building consensus for pragmatic and effective policies through deliberation and accommodation; they are not simple weather vanes, shifting this way or that according to the views contained in the latest polls or the advice of their favorite political consultant. 

We hear much today in politics about the search for “authenticity” in political candidates; this, I believe, is a reflection of Americans' desire for political leaders who understand that while good leadership begins with listening, it cannot end there. 

Getting the balance right between reflecting the views of the American people and allowing for the judgment and skill of the elected representative is difficult. But it is hard for me to imagine that a politician who focuses on what is best for our country can go too far wrong. A clash of enlightened politicians who are determined to find remedies that serve the public good will almost certainly produce better policy than politicians who view their job as mirroring the latest polls or the positions of special–interest constituencies. The challenge for American voters is to know the difference, and reward the former rather than the latter. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)