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The Political Landscape Ahead


January 3, 2019


In the days following George H. W. Bush’s death, it was impossible to ignore the 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 this yearning sprang from: a deep-seated doubt that the system can work, and great worry that our democratic institutions are failing.

A lot of trends feed this. There’s the intensifying partisan divide, which is stoked by disagreements over economic priorities, environmental awareness, and a variety of cultural issues. Inequalities of wealth and education exacerbate these divisions.

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.

I’m also impressed by the number and variety of groups and interests that seek to bring Americans to their side. A lot of people are putting a huge amount of resources, time, energy, and talent into all kinds of political groups. They want the public to see things the way they see them.

At the same time, it’s hard to miss the sense of engagement that many Americans – whatever their political beliefs – feel at this moment. 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. 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. 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.

Editor’s Note: 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.


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