The joy of politics

by | Oct 31, 2019 | Opinion

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 likeminded 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 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.

For more stories like this, see the Oct. 31 edition or subscribe online.

Lee Hamilton  • Director of the Center of Congress

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