When people ask me how politics has changed since I first ran for Congress in 1964, the first thing that comes to mind is how news is everywhere within minutes. A debate on Capitol Hill back then might or might not have made the news, but even if it did, days could go by before the rest of the country reacted. Today, the response is instantaneous and often hot-blooded.
Indeed, almost every facet of politics today is more complicated and hard-edged. Voters want instant results. Consultants are everywhere. Lobbyists have multiplied. Politics is now big business.
Perhaps because of all this, it is much harder to do the basic work of politics: Finding common ground. A generation ago, when politicians of differing views met to hammer out their differences, they actually hammered out their differences. It was not easy, but they believed that they had a responsibility to find their way out of difficult problems together.
Today, the bedrock notion that politicians would come together to make the country work seems quaint. It hasn't disappeared entirely, but it's certainly endangered.
Which may be one reason there's been another change in politics over the years. I first went to Congress at a time when Americans had faith in the institutions of government and Lyndon Johnson was campaigning for president on a platform that the country could successfully wage a war against poverty. Today, it seems inconceivable that a politician would be so bold or so naive. Congress can't even get a normal budget done on time. A "war" on anything seems beyond its grasp.
I don't mean to be entirely negative. Politics' greater intensity also has its bright spots. There are more and often better sources of information. Ordinary Americans are highly engaged, with more avenues of entry into the system. It's possible to learn about complex issues far more easily than just a few decades ago.
Perhaps that's something to build on. With greater public sophistication about a complex system, Americans might also show more patience with politicians trying in good faith to resolve our challenges. And if that happens, who knows? Maybe we'll even discover that government can, in fact, successfully tackle the big problems.
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. Comments can be sent to centeroncongress.org.