I have been working in or around government for over 50 years, and if you asked me to boil down what I’ve learned to one sentence, it is this: Governing is much harder work than most people imagine. This doesn’t excuse its lapses or sluggish rate of progress, but it does help explain them.
Why is it so hard? Partly it’s the country we live in. There were 130 million Americans when I was in high school. Now we number over 300 million, with a diversity and cultural complexity that were impossible to imagine when I started out. Finding common ground, meeting complex needs, answering to an overwhelming diversity of interests — this is not work for the faint of heart.
The structure we do this with makes it even tougher. We have governments at the federal, state, and local levels, and they in turn have branches — executive, legislative and judicial — and a cornucopia of massive agencies. To solve a problem you have to navigate a slow, complex, untidy system whose transparency and accountability are always less than they should be.
This is magnified by an American public that, these days especially, wants mutually contradictory things. We want to rein in Wall Street excess, but we don’t support the regulatory structure to do it. We want affordable health care but don’t like Washington’s involvement in the health-care system. We want to shrink the deficit without any cuts in defense spending or entitlements.
Our diversity, complex structure, and difficulty settling on coherent policies make the hardest part of governing even harder. Building a consensus is the most important and most difficult part of political leadership. If politics is ultimately about the search for a remedy — I know, for many politicians it’s about ego or power or money, but I’m interested in the ideal — then you have to be able to get a consensus around that remedy. You need a majority in the U.S. House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the President’s approval. This country cannot be governed without compromise, dialogue and accommodation, and it comes apart at the seams when we go too long without them.
We often have disagreements in politics, but good politicians know that we have no choice but to work through them. The best want to bring different groups of people together, not pull them apart. They understand that not all the good ideas come from one source, and they reject the idea of constant conflict and permanent gridlock. In a divided country with a government specifically set up to divide powers, we need to follow this process — not because we want to but because we have to.
They know, too, that you have to treat every person with dignity and respect, even though the clashes may be hard. I used to watch Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill engage in tough, hard-hitting dialogue over the issues of the day, but for both of them the underlying premise was that they had to reach an agreement and move ahead. They knew civility had to be the rule — and always ended by trying to top each other with a good Irish story, doing their best to leave everyone in the room in an upbeat frame of mind.
Don’t get me wrong. The clash of ideas is important. In a dynamic system, with competing power centers and a panoply of interests trying to use their power to achieve their objectives, better policy — a policy that more nearly reflects the will of the American people — can emerge from this debate. Playing one side against the other, or merely stating the problem in order to rile up listeners — these are easy. Moving ahead to reach a solution: that’s the hard part.
Which is why our system works so slowly. It’s unwieldy, messy, and often very noisy, but most of the time, it gets there.
Yet there are no guarantees. Our system is not self-perpetuating. There is no automatic pilot. The question Abraham Lincoln asked at Gettysburg 151 years ago is as fresh today as it was then: Can a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure? We’re still finding out, but we know one thing: It will take hard work.
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.