Good Communication Anchors Our Democracy

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Thursday, January 8, 2009
Shortly before the turn of the year, I got a look at some polling numbers that brought me up short. They suggest that our representative democracy has a great deal of work to do. 

Every year, the Center on Congress at Indiana University polls about a thousand people across the country to gauge their attitudes toward, and experiences with, members of Congress. Our most recent survey looked into the relationship between constituents and their representatives. 

It found a few encouraging signs: Almost half the respondents had contacted their representatives in Washington during the past two years, for instance, while 58 percent had read their members' newsletters and two-thirds of those had found this material useful. So there is some life in the "dialogue" between key players in our representative democracy. 

Yet there was also sobering news. A full 68 percent of the respondents indicated that they don't believe members of Congress care what people like them think. And when asked whom members of Congress listen to most carefully, they turned even more cynical. Only 10 percent thought members of Congress pay the closest attention to people back home; 38 percent indicated party leaders; and over half, 51 percent, said they're convinced members of Congress listen above all to lobbyists. 

These are dismaying figures. The very heart of our democracy is the relationship between voters and the men and women who represent them. Our system depends on the ability of voters to convey to their representatives what's on their minds, on the ability of representatives to explain to voters the choices that confront them, and on the care with which each listens to what the other has to say. 

If voters don't believe they're being listened to — or, just as important, if they don't trust what their representatives are telling them — then a key piece of our political system needs rebuilding. 

What I find especially intriguing about these poll results is that members of Congress do spend a lot of time and effort trying to reach out to constituents. They maintain staffs devoted solely to carrying on the correspondence that goes naturally with the job; they send out newsletters and e-mails explaining their positions; they meet with constituents in Washington, and travel home frequently for open houses and community gatherings. Even so, this recent poll suggests that none of this is as effective as politicians would like to believe. 

I suspect that a large part of this has to do with perception on both sides. Many House members — the federal representatives closest to the people — come from essentially uncompetitive districts. They really do not have to listen to all of their constituents, only to a small fraction of them; nor do they have to campaign hard every two years, giving them less incentive to work tirelessly to be in touch with every strand of thought within their district. 

It's not that members deliberately ignore particular constituencies, but I know from experience that it's very easy to believe that you're meeting a lot of people as you travel around your district, when in fact you're actually just seeing the same people over and over again. You might visit a given community five or ten times over the course of a year, but if you look back and ask yourself whom you actually saw, you'll find it's often the same people: the news media, the party hierarchy and activists, the movers and shakers. You're not actually reaching deep into the community. 

Similarly, many voters satisfy themselves with very limited exposure to their representatives: the occasional letter or e-mail; a glance at a newsletter; whatever they read in the press, see on the news, or hear about on talk radio. They don't take the extra steps to acquaint themselves with their representatives' votes or positions, much less seek out chances to talk with them face to face. So it becomes easy to buy into the national story line that Congress has grown distant from the people and is bought and paid for by special interests. 

In brief, the quality of the dialogue between voter and representative is nowhere close to what it should be. 

I am hopeful that new technology will eventually play a helpful role here, particularly for reaching younger voters. Members of Congress are — slowly — learning to make use of social networking sites, online communities such as Second Life, YouTube and other forms of new media to expand both their own outreach and the range of constituents with whom they can interact. 

But fixing the problem will take time and effort by voters and elected officials alike. It will require a recognition that good communications takes more work than we'd thought — that members of Congress need to take the time to reach beyond the circles in which they usually travel, and that for a voter, being an active citizen means engaging one's representatives, not just passively hearing about them. 

The payoff should be significant: more trust on both sides, more faith on the part of ordinary Americans that the system isn't stacked against them, and a more vibrant representative democracy. 

(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.)