We’ve just had three “change” elections in a row, but you don’t get the sense that Americans are any happier with politics and government. In late December, a Gallup poll found just 17 percent satisfied with the way things are going in the United States — well below the average of 40 percent since Gallup started asking the question in 1979.
So it’s no surprise that Congress is polling at record lows or that political leaders in general get blamed for the country’s problems. After all, we elected them to govern well, and there’s a broad — indeed, bipartisan — sense that their decisions have not met the nation’s needs.
Yet I’d like to suggest that our attention needs re-directing. You never want to let our political leaders off the hook — not in a democracy — but if you want to make change in the political realm, you can’t start with them. Their habits and responses to the pressures they face are too ingrained. Instead, change starts with you and me: the American voter.
Here’s what we need to remember: While a lot of media attention goes to those on the extremes, the voters who actually decide most elections are not the strong liberals, strong conservatives, or Democratic or Republican activists. The key voters, the ones in the middle, don’t have a passionate attachment to either party, a vigorous identification with any particular ideology — or even a strong interest in politics. They’re busy with their families, their community responsibilities, their jobs … or their job hunts. They don’t have the time or inclination to argue the finer points of ideology or analyze the nuances of the policy debates that so entrance Washington.
But they do decide the outcome of elections. And they have a few key stances that are worth considering. They want our country to succeed, both in the world and at home, and just as important, they want it to work. They’re pragmatists who don’t care so much how you arrive at a solution to a given problem as that the solution produces positive results. And they want government itself to work — not to be burdened by favoritism, partisan posturing or ideological preconceptions that undercut its effectiveness.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve been unsatisfied with a status quo filled with too many instances of bureaucratic fumbling, partisan gridlock, and political grandstanding. They want the United States to do better.
It can, if we exercise our responsibilities as voters. To begin, everything depends on exercising discriminating judgment. While on any given issue the voice of the average voter may appear weak, in broad measure our system moves in the direction voters want. So it matters where we as voters come down — and it matters whom we choose to represent us in Washington.
Above all, we want to make sure that the tone our representatives set accords with the best interests of the country. Cooperation and the ability to find common ground are absolutely vital skills for politicians, and we need to expect they’ll use them. Our nation is too diverse for any one faction or ideology to dictate the way forward, so choosing political leaders who know how to compromise when necessary is key to changing the tone of our politics.
So is refusing to buy into the apocalyptic rhetoric that is all too common around election time these days. Political contests in this country are rarely, if ever, death-matches between good and evil; the future of civilization is not at stake when we enter the voting booth. The country will survive — and who knows, it might even prosper — even if the other side wins the election. No election has permanent results in our system.
Finally, voters should know how to listen — to the candidates, to party leaders, to media commentators — but also know when to stop listening. All those different points of view can inform our thinking, especially those whose perspectives are different from ours. But they can’t do our thinking for us. As voters, we need to be true to our own perceptions, our values, and our judgment of what the country needs.
Which is a reminder that we need to have some sympathy for how hard it is to be a politician — because it’s their job to balance all the views of people whose discriminating judgments often lead in different directions. It is extremely hard to make this country work, but as voters we can help it along by choosing political leaders who are more determined to make the country succeed than to have their personal views enshrined.
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.