Retail Politics for the Rest of Us

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Monday, March 13, 2000
If you should ever find yourself in southern Indiana, and want to get a good sense of what people in heartland American communities are thinking about, I can tell you where to visit. There's the McDonald's in New Albany at breakfast-time. Or you could drop by Fleigs Tavern, in Ferdinand. Or Hardy's in the middle of Salem. These are the places ordinary townspeople gather over the course of a day, and it's not hard to get a good discussion going there about anything from the state of public education to the latest news from the presidential campaigns. 


I mention this because, when I was a Member of Congress from southern Indiana, I used to spend a fair amount of time going to places like that to listen to what people in my district had to say. Which is why its always puzzling to hear how politicians in Washington only pay attention to power brokers and big-time donors. The last few months have been a good time for what's called "retail politics," the face-to-face, politician-to-voter encounters that help those running for office understand what is on people's minds. In New Hampshire, Iowa and again in South Carolina, the presidential candidates spent time shaking hands, talking and, more importantly, listening. Now, as the pressures of national campaigning force them to become more distant again, you might imagine that the chance to have your voice heard is over and done with. It's not — particularly if you pay attention to your Member of Congress. 


I hear the complaint all the time that public officials don't care about ordinary citizens, and polls constantly show a good proportion of Americans believe that to be true. The fact is, though, Members of Congress are probably more tuned in to what their constituents think than at anytime in the past. Most of them know their home turf very well — who its employers are, where its plants are, where people go for coffee in the morning — and they take frequent trips home to spend time in those places. They hold numerous public meetings, poll their districts regularly, and answer hundreds of letters and e-mail messages daily. They're on the telephone every day just to check up with constituents or to help them out with some problem or work on local projects of interest to them. Members really do believe that constituent views are important; during all my years in Congress I never heard a Member say otherwise. 


So why this impression that elected officials disdain the voices of common folk? Part of it, I suspect, is the general mistrust of politicians that marks this era in our history. Part of it, too, is that as districts grow larger and more diverse and the number of issues our country grapples with increase, become more complex and evolve, it becomes harder for a Member of Congress to know with assurance what constituents believe on any single issue. 


But I also think a big part of it is that Americans are losing the habit of involvement in politics and their understanding of what politicians do — they have their jobs and their families and their pastimes to occupy them, and except for a major event like a tight presidential contest, they'd just as soon not be bothered. 


So what's the answer? Well, I have a proposition for you. The next time your Member of Congress is home in the district, spend a few hours following them around. Go to the taverns and the McDonald's and the town hall meetings. Not only will you enjoy yourself, I think you'll come away impressed and reassured, and you will get a feeling of satisfaction that comes from participation in a 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.)