A common insult aimed at someone trying to accomplish something in the public realm these days is to say: “He’s playing politics with the issue.” And if you want to disparage a policy decision? “It was political.” Or dismiss an action as barely worth discussing? “Oh, that’s just politics.”
Bashing politics and politicians may be America’s favorite indoor sport — right up there with bashing Congress. So here’s my question: How do you resolve issues in this country without politics?
The answer is, you can’t. On any major public policy issue, and a good percentage of minor ones, there is more than one viewpoint and a plethora of different interests involved. Climate change, the budget, war and peace, abortion, taxes, transportation spending, deep-sea oil drilling … you name it, it’s riddled with politics. So how do you resolve these issues when they come to the fore? We have just one way: our political process. It’s how we as a nation battle over ideas, make decisions and search for remedies to the problems that confront us.
So when we demonize politics — when we disparage compromise, ridicule policy makers searching for common ground, criticize legislators who give way on one front so they can make progress on something they care about even more — we drive Americans away from the only reliable means of settling issues that we have. We alienate them from our democracy.
I understand that the process can be discouraging. Issues we care about get sidelined because someone in power feels the need to grandstand or impose his or her own agenda. People make promises they either can’t keep or never intended to keep. Each side exaggerates the other’s faults and misrepresents the facts to favor their own position. Negotiations over this or that bill can take months — years, even — as everyone jockeys for position. Politics can be messy and unsightly.
And all this, of course, gets thrown into even sharper relief by the media, which has a habit of focusing more on the politics of any given issue — especially if it’s in Congress — than on the substance. It may be that it’s easier to say that the fight over a tax cut is just political than it is to explain the substance of the issue, but that hardly serves citizens who are trying to understand it.
For the truth is, “politics” often reflects sincere disagreement. Each side genuinely believes that the country will benefit from its position. Or that a bill could be made even better by adding this provision or taking that one out. In fact, politics puts a premium on resourcefulness and the ability to read and understand the opposing side — because it demands that if you’re going to forge agreement, you know how to accommodate a range of different interests.
When I served in Congress, I ran across people every so often who had simply given up on the political system. “It’s nothing but politics,” they’d say in disgust, “and I want nothing to do with it!” What invariably struck me at that moment was that we’d been talking about some issue — taxes, maybe, or farm subsidies or social-welfare spending — that actually affected them and their lives. By giving up, they’d given up on trying to reach a resolution.
And that’s the danger of turning away from politics. The more people who do, the more we’ll be run by the people who’ve chosen to stay in the game — and who don’t necessarily see the point of keeping in mind the interests of those who aren’t engaged. Besides, what’s the alternative to politics? It’s how we make decisions. We don’t do it by charging some high-powered committee to impose its will on the rest of us, and we certainly don’t do it by dictatorship. We do it by recognizing that in a pluralistic society there will be many voices, and by respecting the process by which they come together and hammer out their disagreements.
I don’t expect Americans to quit saying, “Oh, it’s just politics.” But I do hope that underneath they’ll understand that of course it’s politics. That’s how we settle our differences. And every American who opts out makes the system just a little less representative.
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.