Failure to Communicate

Monday, February 1, 1999


A bit over two decades ago, in a plain, cinder-block community hall in Switzerland County, Indiana, I got a small lesson in democracy that bears remembering in these ill-tempered political times. Switzerland County is a deeply rural, tobacco-growing county in the far southern corner of the state, and in the late 1970s it was about as rustic a setting as you could find in Indiana. Certainly it was not a place I expected to come for enlightenment on international politics. 

Meeting with a group of constituents, though, the subject of the Panama Canal treaties came up — well before the media had focused on the issue. A man I'd never met suddenly stood up and proceeded to lay out the cleanest, clearest, most evenly reasoned argument for ratification that I ever did hear on the matter — even after the treaty debate mushroomed into a raging national issue. I was flabbergasted, but took it as a humbling reminder that as a Member of Congress, you can always find constituents who know more about a given subject than you. 

In these post-impeachment days, though, as Congress and the American people warily sort through their feelings about each other, I've begun to see an even more cogent lesson in that long-ago encounter. It was, I think, a bracing illustration of how much responsibility ordinary citizens bear for making Congress work properly. 

This may seem an odd notion to suggest at a time when finding fault with Congress has become a national pastime. Criticizing Congress is now second nature to many people, as easy as griping about the IRS. For myself, I'm impressed with the way Congress tackles difficult national problems, manages conflict in the country, acts as a national forum, mirrors a wide range of views, and over time usually develops a consensus that reflects the collective judgment of a diverse people. Yet the truth is that this can happen only if there is a conversation, a process of mutual education. Legislators have to be able to educate their constituents — illuminate issues, explain their own thinking, make clear that most issues are not etched in black and white. And citizens have to be able to educate their representatives: The policies that Congress enacts will work only to the extent that they're grounded in the realities faced by ordinary Americans. All of this depends on open and trusting interaction between Members of Congress and the people who elected them. And that's hard to find these days. 

Some of the problem lies with Congress itself. Legislators deal with so many complex issues now that they have trouble finding the time to consult regularly with their districts. A century ago, a Member of Congress handled three or four weighty national issues over the course of a career; today, he or she has to do the same thing before lunch. And when legislators do meet with their constituents, the temptation is to soften their comments rather than have a frank discussion about what is best for the country. 
But responsibility for this breakdown in communications also lies with ordinary citizens. Many of them are giving up on the conversation. In my last few terms in office, most of the letters I received from constituents were prompted by national organizations or special interest groups urging me to support or oppose a particular bill. Many of these letters were drafted in Washington. These organized campaigns generated thousands of identical mailgrams, letters or postcards, which many congressional offices merely counted or weighed. And when I went home to my district, more often than not as I stood in front of a roomful of voters, I could feel a curtain of doubt hanging between me and them: I took the positions I did, they believed, because of this or that campaign contribution, not because I'd spent time studying and weighing the merits of issues. They had given themselves over to cynicism, and cynicism is the great enemy of democracy. It is very difficult for public officials to govern when their character, values and motives are always suspect: It makes dialogue, conversation and mutual education impossible. 

My constituent in Switzerland County, I think, understood this. He understood that in a world filled with complex issues that often don't have neat solutions, the relationship between a citizen and a legislator requires more than an impatient lecture or a moment's pause to sign a computer-generated postcard. And he understood that I could represent him only if we had a relationship — that in the cacophony of modern politics, a bit of clear thinking and calm discussion would carry his voice all the way back to Washington with me. 

(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.)