In the days following George H. W. Bush’s death, it was impossible to ignore the mood that settled over much of the country: a yearning for the civility, dignity and inclusiveness that the former president represented. It was a form of bipartisan nostalgia for a time when the nation seemed to work.
As we head toward 2019, it’s equally hard to ignore the ground that this yearning sprang from: a deep-seated doubt that the system can work, and great worry that our democratic institutions are failing. Looking at American politics today, coming into what will undoubtedly be a momentous political year, what seems most apparent is an air of disappointment in our politicians and watchful concern for our way of life.
A lot of trends are feeding this. There’s the intensifying partisan divide, which is in turn stoked by disagreements over economic priorities, over environmental awareness, over issues like affirmative action, immigration, and the role of police, and over such cultural issues as abortion and gay rights. Inequalities of wealth and education exacerbate these divisions. And the rural-urban divide that featured so prominently in the midterm elections shows no sign of narrowing.
This fraying of the American fabric might not appear so threatening if we were capable of pursuing a healthy political dialogue, but that, too, seems increasingly out of reach.
We don’t get the kind of extensive, deep, fact-based discussion of the issues we once did. Our political leaders seem less skillful than their predecessors at finding the common good or negotiating their way to compromises that give all sides the chance to leave the table with something in hand. There’s a lot of excoriating one’s opponents for misbehaving, and typically no concern at all for similar misbehavior on one’s own side. Partisanship is hardening.
I’m also impressed by the number and variety of groups and interests that seek to bring Americans to their side, using multiple avenues — the internet, television advertising, “grassroots” campaigns — to persuade them to support their point of view. A lot of people are putting a huge amount of resources, time, energy, and talent into all kinds of political groups. They always identify what they want to do as a public good, but nonetheless it’s almost invariably a plea for special consideration. They want the public to see things the way they see them.
Which, not surprisingly, has made the role of money in politics ever more important, and the amount flowing into politics ever more massive. That’s been true for a couple of generations now. What seems different, though, is that ordinary Americans seem to be more aware of the role that money plays in getting things done.
At the same time all this is going on, it’s hard to miss the sense of engagement that many Americans — whatever their political beliefs — feel at this moment. We saw this in the midterm elections, of course, but we also see it in the day to day workings of community life.
Although there are some notable exceptions, many state and local governments, disappointed by what they see as either gridlock or dysfunction at the federal level, are finding ways to improve life for their citizens on their own. And citizens of all sorts are plunging into politics and into community issues with enthusiasm and vigor.
Clearly, at the federal, state and local levels, a lot of this activity is based on citizens’ desire to improve the quality of their lives. That’s a heartening motivation. They want to see power used to get things right. Just as they want to be productive in their own communities, they want policy makers to be serious and productive, too.
This suggests, I think, that many Americans are wearying of pure ideology and rhetoric as political tools; they want tangible progress on the issues that affect the country.
So as we head into 2019, there’s a feeling afoot that we’ve got a lot of work to do — and the nagging worry that our political system isn’t up to the task. That’s why this will be a momentous year: it’s our political leaders’ opportunity to prove that they, and the institutions they run, can answer to Americans’ needs.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor 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. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.