NICD Advisory Board Member Lee Hamilton on Civil Discourse

June 20, 2013

Thursday, June 20

Bloomington, IN

Interview by Mickey Taylor, NICD Student Volunteer


Taylor: Mr. Hamilton, what does civil discourse mean to you?

Hamilton: Civil discourse, in our public dialogue with one another on all kinds of important issues confronting the country, means that we simply respect the rights and the dignity of other people. Civility is an art – it requires a constant application. I don’t think it means we have to agree with one another – we have a lot of difficult issues in the country and we have differences in opinion. It does mean we treat people who disagree with us with respect and dignity.

Taylor: Thanks. On that note, why did you decide to be on the Advisory Board for the NICD?

Hamilton: Well, I think the National Institute for Civil Discourse emphasizes the importance of civility, as the title suggests, in our public dialogue. They are a center for advocacy, for research, and for policy regarding civil discourse through the country. It’s a very worthy objective. And, in the present highly partisan environment where I think we often have excessive partisanship, the emphasis that the National Institute for Civil Discourse brings is an important one for the country. So I’m very happy and pleased to be a part of it, I commend the leaders of it, and I certainly want to be supportive of their objectives.

Taylor: You surely have a ton of examples to give, but due to your immense time in Congress, can you give us a concrete example of civil discourse helping the system?

Hamilton: I think civil discourse is necessary to get much of anything done of consequence in Congress, because you really need, in almost all cases, bipartisan support. And that means you have to work with people who may not see things the same way as you see them. There are lots of good examples – the GI Bill, for example, and we’ve had a big debate in the country lately about the cost of food stamps. But the program itself is not being attacked, its how much money you put into it – a legitimate question. It’s a successful example of civil discourse.

Medicare, welfare reform, even the social security system – you look back over and see all the major achievements of the Congress of the last twenty or thirty years and I think they all came about because people of differing views came together, had disagreements, and worked them out through civil discourse. Without civil discourse, I think it’s virtually impossible to move towards a solution to problems in our country. First of all, civil treatment of your fellow Americans is good manners. Yet civility is also a lubricant for any civic political or economic activity, and outright rudeness – charging your adversaries with all kinds of nefarious motivations – makes it virtually impossible to reconcile opposing views.

Taylor: One point you mentioned in there is the need for bipartisanship for things to be successful – but in one of your commentaries for your Center for Congress, you mention the downward trend of bipartisanship in Washington. Do you think bipartisanship can return to Washington? What steps need to be taken?

Hamilton: While I think there are some encouraging signs, I think most of us, including myself, and certainly most Americans if we believe the polls, believe that we have in Washington today is excessive partisanship. I think I should say at the outset in answering the question that partisanship is not all bad – you expect and should have it in a great big complicated country with tensions between different points of view. We’re all partisans on certain issues. The problem is not partisanship; the problem is excessive partisanship.

I don’t think there’s any single reason for it. I think that it’s a complicated country and that there are a lot of different reasons. The way we draw our congressional districts has drawn a lot of attention. There is a tendency now to elect Democrats that are more liberal and Republicans that are more conservative because the districts are drawn overwhelmingly Democrat or overwhelmingly Republican. That means you have fewer moderates. It means you have more excessive partisans.

It’s very difficult with the way that Congress runs its schedule today for members to get to know one another well, especially outside the rather confrontational settings of the committee hearings and the debate on the floor. If you don’t know the people very well, you can get angry with them. The better you know them, the harder it is to get angry. So, the schedules of the Congress, being very, very heavy for members of Congress, means members don’t know one another very well. I think that’s a contributing factor.

I think the media is also a contributing factor. They exacerbate the differences between us, oftentimes, but not always, rather than trying to bring us together. The result is, for these and other reasons, the intensity of our politics has ratcheted up quite a bit. And just as there is no single cause for excessive partisanship, there’s no simple solution either. The way I’ve identified some of the causes suggest some of the solutions.

Taylor: After reading through some of your commentaries, one gets the distinct impression that the Washington of today is different from the Washington of your time. What are some of the major differences to you that you see?

Hamilton: Well there are a lot of differences, of course. I think the important things I’d point out start with, as mentioned, the intensity of our politics. It has ratcheted up quite a bit. We have a bigger country than fifty years ago, more people and more diversity. We read regularly in the press now about how the nation is becoming less white, with ethnic groups rising in number and importance. All of these changes have brought forward, I think, divisions among the American people and ratcheted up the pressure. So that’s the level of politics – more lobbyists, more money, more intensity. It’s a big difference.

I think the largest difference, however, is an attitudinal one. That is to say, decades ago, we had many differences on policy, yet there was a kind of attitude, or maybe it was a premise, which underlay our negotiations and differences. The premise was that we had to make the country work. There were differences among us, but we had to work them out, and we couldn’t walk away from the table or shut the government down. We had to solve the problem. And that required accommodation, compromise, and civility to reach an agreement.

Today, that premise seems to be missing. In other words, people seem to come into the negotiation and say, “I want to set forward my ideological and political position. I don’t really care whether we reach an agreement or not, I just want to advocate my position.” That’s a huge difference, and it makes all the difference.

So what you basically need, then, is an attitude and frame of mind that acknowledges that these problems are real. We’ve got differences of opinion on them, and we’ll advocate our position strongly, but at the end of the day, my responsibility, as a politician, is to make the country work.

Taylor: I keep coming back to these commentaries for the Center on Congress, which you are the director for, so I’d figure I’d give you a chance to tell us about the aims and goals of the Center.

Hamilton: The aims of the Center on Congress are very simple – we want to try to increase the understanding in people of the Congress and of the representative democracy. That’s the principle purpose. It came about because of public meetings I had while a member of Congress, wherein I often found myself just explaining the role of the Congress in a representative democracy. That’s what the Center is all about. Its message is not complicated; it’s very simple. It is that we have a representative democracy today; we have a government in which the dominant trend over a period of decades has been a shift of power to the executive branch, and the question becomes how long can this trend go on and still have the nation be a representative democracy? So we favor here at the Center a separation of powers, checks and balances, a Congress that is robust – we do not favor a weak president.

We think the system works best when you have a strong president and a strong Congress. Today, you do not have a strong Congress. You have a timid Congress. They’re not dealing with the problems of the country effectively; they’re not close to being a co-equal branch of government. They are reactive to the president. If they like Obama, they support him; if they don’t like Obama, they don’t work with him. The Congress does not have its own stature, its own equality. It’s a very reactive branch to the president. So we want a strong, robust Congress fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities. We want a strong, robust president, and we think the tension between the Congress and the president on all kinds of issues is the best way to develop public policy. So that is our message.

Our message is also one of civic participation. If you’re going to have a viable representative democracy, you have to have citizens who vote, who are involved in their communities, who are well informed, and who think they can make a difference in their community. And without citizens such as that, you don’t have a robust, viable representative democracy.

Taylor: All right, the next question is more for me than for the NICD – as a twenty year-old from middle-class suburbia I don’t get many opportunities like this. So, on that note, can you tell us some of the things that happen behind the scenes in Congress that the public doesn’t see?

Hamilton: One of the merits of the Congress is that it’s more transparent than the executive branch, and certainly the judicial branch. The executive and judicial branches of government operate largely behind close doors. Very few of us know what’s going on. The Congress, to its merit, is a much more open branch of government, I think, than the other two. Having said that, it’s not as open as it should be. There are still too many meetings that are secret, that are not in the open, that are behind closed doors.

Taylor: You do mention in one commentary, however, that the constant attention by the media and immediacy of the reports lead to some negative consequences as well.

Hamilton: It does. The media demands an answer, and sometimes its good for politicians to not give an answer. I know the public doesn’t like that, necessarily. However, the politician working at his or her best tries to build a consensus behind a solution. Oftentimes, if the politician is pressed by the media, with questions like ‘what’s your position on this?’ early on in the discussion of a problem, the politician gets locked into a position and is therefore unable to be a politician, is unable to find common ground. The media tends to exacerbate the differences rather than to look for the commonalities. So, I think, not invariably, but oftentimes the media makes it more difficult to achieve the most difficult thing in American politics – reaching a consensus behind a solution.

Taylor: Another statement in one of your commentaries is that politics is now big business compared to the politics of yesteryear. Can you expound upon the ramifications that this brings?

Hamilton: I think what I had in mind when saying that politics is big business is the sheer money involved. Money has become a very powerful actor in American politics today. I think the system is disproportionately responsive to money. Now, if a donor, whether it is an entity or a person, has a lot of money to provide to campaigns, that person has more access and influence than the person who doesn’t have money. So, the more influence you give to people who have money, the less influence ordinary Americans have, because they don’t have the money to give to campaigns. I’m worried about the role of money in American democracy. You can’t exclude it, its part of free speech, if I have money I’m entitled to use it as I please. All of that is a part of our freedom, and, I think, generally positive. On the other hand, what you have seen in the last number of decades is the growing influence of money on the political system – on members of Congress, on members of state legislatures, and of anyone running for public office. Oftentimes these members will have to be responsive, too responsive, to those high money donors. When they’re thinking of the donor, they’re not thinking of what’s good for the country. They’re thinking of what helps the man who gave them the money. And when you begin to think that way, you’re in trouble. The country is in trouble.

Taylor: Thanks so much. The final question is, simply, what’s next for you?

Hamilton: What’s next for me is to continue running the Center on Congress, and seeing how we can do our job better.