You’re probably chuckling already. Seriously? “The joy of politics”?
That was pretty much the reaction I got the other day when, in the middle of a conversation about how confrontational, adversarial, and downright unpleasant politics has become of late, I suggested that it could be both fun and a source of satisfaction.
Yes, of course there are always irritations and inconveniences. And the often mean-spirited tone of today’s contentious politics is well beyond anything I encountered when I was in office.
But none of this erases the satisfactions that also come with the territory. They start with the people you can meet in the political arena: able, ambitious, articulate, often at the top of their game. They may be friends or foes, but the foes aren’t usually permanent: sometimes they become friends, as the debate moves along to other issues and you find yourself sharing common ground. In fact, you’re never lonely in politics, because nothing can be accomplished alone. There’s huge satisfaction in the teamwork, in rolling up your sleeves with a like-minded group of people focused on a common goal.
Politics is also what allows you to hold government to account, call out its misdeeds and failures, and highlight its successes. You find that you have a voice in the public debate. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure your own impact. But there’s a true thrill in the battle: win, lose, or draw. You’re participating in the success and the direction of your community and your country.
More to the point, you’re trying to change things. As Teddy Roosevelt said in a famous 1910 speech, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… [Whose] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
The satisfactions of engaging in politics do not just come when things are easy or running smoothly. They’re most acute, in fact, when circumstances are difficult, when being involved can make a difference, and when working through fraught times yields progress on the other side.
It’s true that progress is often incremental; it rarely comes all at once. The pleasures come from knowing that you’re doing your best to solve or mitigate problems and fighting for what you think is right. You’re participating in the great experiment of democracy in America, and are part of a long line of Americans trying to answer Lincoln’s question at Gettysburg of whether this nation “so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that one “may live greatly in the law.” It’s true for politics, too, despite its difficulties. It challenges you to develop your talents, to hone skills — listening, articulating your thoughts, negotiating with able adversaries and partners, building consensus, compromising in the name of moving forward — that are vital in all walks of life. At its best, politics stretches you and makes you live better.
I have to confess that when I suggested to some of my colleagues that I planned to write about the joy of politics, they thought I was joking. Many people don’t like the political process, and they don’t want to engage in it. There’s something about it that turns them off.
I recognize that it’s not an endeavor that fits everyone’s makeup or desires. But I’d also ask you this: if you’re serious about being a citizen in a democracy, how can you avoid engaging in it in the manner and to the extent of your choosing? In the end, politics is just how we Americans do our best to help our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our states, and our country become even better places to live. And if you do get involved, here’s my bet: that you’ll have times that make you wonder why you bothered, but you’ll also find plenty of moments that bring you satisfaction, and even joy.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and a professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.