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What to look for in a politician
Lee Hamilton
Lee Hamilton

Have you already made up your mind about how you're going to vote - at least by party - in this year's important elections? I hope not.

Because to serve our nation well at this troubled time in its political history, you should be looking for certain qualities in the politicians you favor. Ideology, party affiliation, positions on key issues - these are important considerations, but this year demands more from us as voters.

This is the most agitated political environment I've seen in decades. The electorate is badly divided; the parties are split internally and vis-à-vis one another; the national mood is sour; our democratic institutions are unproductive; and our political leaders cannot seem to cooperate with one another, much less engage substantively on the crucial issues we face as a nation. Not surprisingly, politicians face a restive, discontented electorate.

So as citizens, it is time to step back and ask how we revive the system when people are so discouraged by politics, our institutions, and our politicians. And the answer, I believe, is that we have to look for politicians who want to build consensus, act constructively, and instill a sense - both in their colleagues and among ordinary voters - that we're all in this together. We need leaders who can rise above divisiveness and focus on cooperation and the common good.

Our institutions are badly in need of repair. Making them work better, which is urgent, will not happen with scorched-earth politicking. It can only come from political leaders who embrace bipartisanship and the traditional values of democracy: pluralism, free speech, and tolerance for opposing points of view.

We want to find politicians who respect and look for the facts, not simply the facts as they wish them to be. We need to examine candidates' rhetoric with great care, and understand that it's easy to state a problem and then lapse into meaningless generalities when it comes to solutions.

By contrast, it's hard - but vitally important in this climate - to speak with clarity and thoughtfulness not just about what needs to be done, but about how to help make it happen.

Here's the bottom line: citizens today carry an extra burden - not merely to pick a politician we might favor for some reason, but to make choices that move us away from ideology and our own biases, and toward getting this country running again.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.