Here’s a surprise: the skills that can be used to win in politics are increasingly the skills needed to produce good policy. Let me explain.
Politicians running for office have a choice. They can appeal to their base and count on it pushing them over the top. Or they can try to build a coalition of voters.
The former gives us more politicians who don't show much interest in crafting broadly acceptable policy. But if they choose instead to run their campaigns by reaching out to a broader swath of the electorate, and if we as voters reward them for this at the polls, then they come to Washington with exactly the skills needed to make our representative democracy work.
We live in a time of great polarization and declining trust: in politicians, in institutions, in one another. Our representative democracy is in stress, if not in peril.
We need to return to our traditional approach: coalition-building across diverse groups of people. We succeed in politics and in governing the country by building a broad base of support that appeals to a wide sector of American society.
This means rejecting partisan hostility, and being willing to work across the aisle. It means rejecting the attitude that the most important thing is for my tribe to win. It means including all people in the public dialogue and dealing with them with respect.
It means rejecting authoritarianism and assaults on our fundamental institutions: the courts, Congress, law enforcement, the media – all the institutions democracy depends upon.
By working within the framework where majorities of Americans find themselves – in support of fair taxation, free markets and free trade; providing opportunity for all; preventing the rise of inequality; in support of limited immigration; in support of mainstream views on freedom of choice; in support of policies to address climate change; in support of the social safety net – there’s plenty of ground for agreement.
So the good news is that you can put together both a winning political campaign and a successful policy drive by speaking straightforwardly to the issues Americans care about, and by understanding where people’s points of commonality lie.
This takes a politician’s skill at its most basic: building consensus behind a solution to a problem. Only then can we fix the many problems the country faces.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.