I’ve had a number of conversations recently that convince me our country is divided into two political camps separated by a deep and uncomfortably wide gap. No, I’m not talking about liberals and conservatives, or pro- and anti-Trump voters. I’m talking about people who believe in politics and our political system, and people who don't.
I’ve found this latter view expressed most frequently among young people. In lecture halls and in informal conversations, I’ve spent some uncomfortable hours serving as a human pincushion for their pointed barbs about the system they’ve grown up in.
Many are uninterested in politics. They do not see politics as a worthy pursuit or even as an honorable vocation. They doubt our political institutions can be made to work, are suspicious of elected officials in general, and don’t believe that our democratic institutions are capable either of solving the problems faced by the country or of helping them as individuals.
They find reason to be discouraged every time they tap into a political story. They’re disheartened by political polarization, by the dominant and excessive role of money in the process, and by the seemingly impregnable influence of special interests on the course of policy. They struggle with their own problems, especially the debt they’ll confront when they get out of school — and believe that they’ll get no help from government.
Indeed, they’re convinced that people in power place their own interests ahead of the country’s — which is why so many of them express real contempt for politicians. They certainly don’t see politics as an uplifting pursuit; I hear the word “messy” a lot, not as an objectively descriptive term, but as an expression of ethical disapproval.
They have a point. There are many reasons for disappointment in our groaning system, and the descriptions they give have much merit.
Yet I still consider politics a worthy profession. It can be pursued in a manner that deserves respect, even admiration. I’ve known a lot of good people in politics, men and women who are in it for all the right reasons, take pride in pursuing a political career, and embrace it as the best route available for solving our common problems.
In fact, I think people who reject the political system often underestimate its accomplishments. We are a strong, prosperous, and free nation because of — not in spite of — our system and the politicians who have come before us.
Sure, politics is “messy,” but not because it’s tainted or morally bankrupt. It’s messy because it often reflects deep-seated disagreements that are hard to resolve, with merit on both sides.
Politics is rarely a struggle between good and evil; it’s how we Americans try to make the country work better. It’s our opportunity to help our neighbors, to give us better schools and hospitals and highways, to make our communities safer and more orderly. It’s a means of resolving our differences through dialogue and compromise, rather than through ideological battle or pitched warfare. If you pay attention, you’ll see a lot of politicians who go about their business intelligently, quietly, and competently — and who get good things done.
So I find myself wondering how those of my persuasion might win these young people over. Discourse matters, obviously. Tolerance of others’ views does, too. And I consider the 240 years of our history, despite all the obvious blemishes, to make a pretty good case for the political system’s accomplishments.
Above all, though, we have to encourage young people’s engagement with the problems we confront. If they want to improve things, they really have no alternative. Getting involved is the only way to see how tough these issues are and how much work goes into even incremental progress. We live in a complicated country and there are a lot of disappointments inherent in trying to make change. But it’s the only way we’ve got.
Those of us who believe in the system must shoulder the burden of persuasion — and I’m worried about what happens if we don’t meet it. If we lose the argument and the next generation turns away, we face dangers and risks — chaos, authoritarianism — that are far worse than what we face now.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.