Why Politicians Are Good for Your (Country's) Health

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Monday, January 10, 2000
Now that an election year is upon us, I have a small suggestion: As your airwaves and your mailbox and possibly even your doorway are filled in the next few months by candidates seeking your support, look for the politicians among them. It won’t be easy. 

That probably sounds odd. After all, when the campaigns heat up in earnest later on, it will seem like you can’t watch a news program or eat a waffle cone at the county fair or mail a letter at the post office without encountering someone asking for your vote. But those are just the candidates; when I say “politician,” I mean something else. I mean someone who knows how to practice the art of politics. 

This is not a skill that has come in for much praise in recent years, but that’s mostly because we’ve gotten confused about what it entails. When the federal government almost got shut down a few years back, that was “politics.” When Washington was consumed by the impeachment of President Clinton and the rest of the people’s business had to take a back seat, that was “politics.” So is the unseemly rush to raise campaign funds, or the tit-for-tat exchange of negative advertising, or the jockeying for public support based on polls and focus groups. To get a sense of just how disdainfully we’ve come to view the word, just imagine the reception you’d get if you stood up at your next neighborhood get-together and announced that politics is good, and that we need more of it, not less. You’d be laughed out of the room. 

But the fact is, you’d be right: Good politicians are vital to the functioning of our democracy, and we desperately need more of them. Let me give you an example of what I mean. 

Suppose you’ve been elected to Congress, and you have to decide how to approach our country’s drug problem. And let’s say, as well, that you firmly believe the answer lies in using federal funds to back more treatment programs for addicts. But then an interesting thing happens. As you talk to your colleagues, you discover that they’re all over the map on the issue: some are dead-set on emphasizing hard jail time for users, some want to beef up spending on anti-drug education efforts, some want to put more drug-fighting tools in the hands of law officers, others want to strengthen border patrols, still others want funding for medical research into the causes of addictive behavior, and others yet want to spend as much as we need to eradicate coca crops in South America. All of them can argue passionately for their point of view, and what’s more, you discover that you have some sympathy for what each of them is saying. Moreover, it gradually begins to dawn on you that in order to make progress on the issue, much less get what you want—more money for treatment programs—you’re going to have to find a way to give others what they want as well. It’s at this moment, as you set about crafting a bill that can take all these voices into account, that you’ll discover why true politics is considered an art. 

Now, there are some who would look at the process of reconciling these competing points of view as messy and unseemly. “Stick to your guns!” they would urge: “Anything less is a sell-out.” But controversy and conflict are unavoidable in a nation as large and diverse as ours—indeed, as the United States grows larger and even more diverse with each passing year, fundamental disagreements over how to address any given issue are likely to grow even more intense. To avoid ripping apart at the seams, we need people who know how to provide stability, to accommodate different points of view, to develop consensus, and to see that the people's needs are met as we wrestle with our problems. That is what good politicians do: They make democratic government possible in a nation alive with competing factions, and they make the country work. This is not an unsavory activity. It is the stuff of which freedom is made. It is why we need more politicians these days, not fewer. 

Over the course of the next few months, as candidates start competing for your attention, you’ll find it tempting—indeed, you’ll be encouraged by the various interest groups to which you belong, as well as by the assumptions of the news media—to expect detailed positions on every possible issue and to look for a cheerleader who can advocate your points of view. My advice is to look beyond that, for the simple reason that the more a politician is locked in by specific positions on different issues, the more difficult it is for him or her to govern. Find someone who can bring different interest groups together, and you will have found someone who can help America solve its problems. The fact is we need to look both at candidates’ views on the issues and their skills as politicians. 

So when you step into the voting booth this fall, remember this: Vote for a politician. It could be the most important contribution you make all year to the health of our Republic. 

(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.)