Lee H. Hamilton
One of the quirks of life in Washington, D.C., is that pretty much the only people who don't refer to lobbyists by that name are, well, lobbyists. They are "policy advisers," or "strategic counsel," or "public relations advisers," or lawyers, or even just "consultants." Whatever they're called, though, they play a huge role in making policy.
One of the gifts of living in a representative democracy is that voting is only one of the rights it confers. For ordinary people who want to make change in their neighborhood or town or state or even the nation, the promise exists that by dint of their own efforts they can do so. This is a precious gift.
An interesting thing keeps happening to me. Every few days, someone — an acquaintance, a colleague, even a stranger on the street — approaches me. They ask some version of the same question: What can we do to pull ourselves out of this dark period?
I've been reminded recently of the old cowboy song, "Home on the Range." You know the line, "Where never is heard a discouraging word"? That is not the United States right now. It feels like everywhere I turn, all I hear is discouragement. Our institutions of government are paralyzed. We face serious national problems with no effective response in sight — or even, in some cases, an acknowledgement that a problem exists. We're fighting over racism, identity, security and culture. Our political system appears dysfunctional and occasionally on the verge of breakdown.
Back in March, two young members of Congress from Texas, Beto O'Rourke and Will Hurd, became brief internet celebrities. Unable to fly back to Washington because of a snowstorm, the two hit the road together, tweeting and live streaming their trip north. They fielded questions along the way on everything from the war on drugs to immigration — and so ended up holding what O'Rourke called "the longest cross-country live stream town hall in the history of the world."
One reason I consider myself fortunate to have led a life in politics is that, over time, I've had a chance to work with nine presidents. From Lyndon Johnson through Barack Obama, I've talked policy, politics, and sometimes, the trivial details of daily life with them. I met JFK twice for brief conversations. I don't know our current president, but I've gained valuable perspective from his predecessors.
Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is, yes, we do... but we have to exercise it.
There's no shortage of threats to our democracy. Russian meddling in elections, the vulnerability of state voting systems to hacking, politicians' assaults on the media, and political leaders' growing fondness for policymaking in secret — all of these pose a real challenge to our system's viability. As worrisome as these are, there's one problem that may be the greatest threat of all: Americans' loss of faith in politics and democratic institutions.
I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to journalism, I'm a traditionalist — old-fashioned, even. But I don't think it's a coincidence that even while confidence in the media drops to new lows and Time magazine feels moved to wonder "Is Truth Dead?" on its cover, huge numbers of Americans have come to believe the media is not as authoritative as it once was.
Back when I was in Congress, I got a call from a constituent one day. I'd recently voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling, and the man was more than irate. "Don't you understand that we've got a serious spending and debt problem in this country?" he asked. "Why did you cast this idiotic vote?" He was right about the problem. But he was wrong about the vote. With Congress fast approaching another debt-ceiling vote and yet one more "fiscal cliff" drama taking shape, I'd like to explain why that is.