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"We've Lost Ground" in American Politics, Lee Hamilton '52 Opines

"We've Lost Ground" in American Politics, Lee Hamilton '52 Opines

April 25, 2019

"We’ve come a long way as a country over the last six decades," writes Lee H. Hamilton, veteran statesman and 1952 DePauw University graduate, in a newspaper column. "But when it comes to politics as a democratic endeavor to address the nation’s challenges? We’ve lost ground."

Hamilton, a Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, opens the piece by stating, "I became active in politics in the late 1950s, got elected to Congress in 1964, and have remained engaged in one way or another every year since then. I’ve had a ringside seat for a long time. So I suppose I should not be surprised that I get asked a lot these days how American politics have changed over the last six decades."

He recalls, "When I first arrived in Congress, Americans had faith in the institutions of government. President Lyndon Johnson had actually run on a platform that we could successfully wage a war on poverty -- and been elected. It seems inconceivable today that a politician of prominence would be so bold and so naïve as to propose such a thing, let alone believe that we could do it."

According to Hamilton, "The second big difference is the extreme political intensity we see all around us. Almost every facet of politics is more complicated and pursued more vigorously, with a harder edge to it, than when I began. Voters are more demanding and want instant results. Consultants are everywhere you turn. Lobbyists have multiplied and become immeasurably sophisticated and effective at finding ways to get what they want. Interest groups have exploded in number and competency. The media has become more aggressive. And money, of course, has become an avalanche. Politics has shifted from low-intensity conflict to big business -- and very serious business, at that. With all this, of course, the sharp polarization that marks our politics today has flourished."

While there is more political information available to everyone, including policy-makers, these days, "in this atmosphere deliberations are often based less on facts, experts and evidence than on partisan beliefs. In a sea of information, we’re drowning in misinformation."

Hamilton also believes that social media has turned every politician's appearance into something that can generate instant headlines. "Newsworthy events and statements that once took days to stoke a reaction today get an instantaneous -- and often hot-blooded -- response," he writes.

"This has all made the work of politics and governing much more difficult. Organizations intensively scrutinize every tiny step, and can gin up a massive response at a moment’s notice. The basic building blocks of politics -- gathering facts, deliberating on next steps, finding common ground — have become charged in their own right, subject to partisan attack. Bridging our divisions over health care, taxation, immigration, the debt and deficits, and U.S. intervention abroad seems ever more elusive. Plain and simple, it’s become harder to make the country work."

Access the complete essay at the website of Washington State's Bainbridge Island Review.

A history major, Rector Scholar and basketball standout at DePauw, Lee H. Hamilton is now is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Since retiring from the U.S. House of Representatives he has remained a prominent voice in American politics. 

A leading figure on foreign policy, intelligence, and national security, he has received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Hamilton is a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and DePauw's Athletic Hall of Fame

Hamilton presented an Ubben Lecture at DePauw in 2011 and has received the University's McNaughton Medal for Public Service as well as an honorary doctorate from DePauw.  Hamilton spoke to graduates at his alma mater in 1971 and 1998.

On February 15, 2018, Hamilton and former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar took part in a discussion at DePauw, "Can We Talk?: Restoring Civility in Public and Political Discourse in the U.S. and Abroad."