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Congressman speaks of political climate, debates, and 2016 election

September 29, 2016

KOKOMO, Ind. — Carsten Beyer’s goal is to one day serve as a United States Congressman.

Tuesday (September 27), he was inspired by one of the nation’s foremost experts on Congress and representative democracy, former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

Hamilton, a distinguished scholar in the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies, and a professor of practice in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, shared insights on the 2016 election, the country’s role in foreign countries, and the current landscape of American politics with nearly 100 IU Kokomo students, faculty, staff, and community members. He represented Indiana’s 9th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999.

“There was a time when a president came into office with 65 percent of the American people wishing him well,” Hamilton said. “The person who is elected this year will come into office with half of the country hating their guts. You try to govern in that environment. From where I stand, whoever is elected will have a tough go of it to get anything done.”

He urged those attending to remember the words of civil rights leader, pastor, and politician Jesse Jackson, to “keep hope alive,” and participate in the political system to make it better. Hamilton shared the example of a friend whose teen daughter died in an accident at a railroad crossing. She took action, speaking to politicians at the local level, and moving up to state government officials, inspiring legislation to make railroad crossings safer throughout the state.

“You can’t solve social security problems, you can’t bring peace in the world, but what can you do? You know your community better than anyone else. You know what needs to be done to improve it,” he said.

“Pick out your problem and go to work. If you do, you’ll be less cynical, you’ll be more engaged.”

Hamilton also cautioned against buying into the cynical view that the political system is rigged, calling that belief “a perilous threat to the government,” or the view that the U.S.’s international power has diminished.

“Don’t buy into it,” he said. “Make the system we have work. The U.S. is the only super power in the world, and what we do makes a difference.” Hamilton noted that at a recent United Nations meeting in New York, world leaders clamored for appointments, however short, with the president.

“That sounds to me like a country that still has clout, and we do,” he said.

Speaking of the 2016 election, he noted that the American people hunger for change, and that there have never been two less popular presidential candidates.

“Partisanship is running deep in American politics today,” he said. “The political temperature is overheated. A majority of voters are saying they want to vote against someone, not for someone.”

Part of what has changed the environment is a shift in campaign focus. When Hamilton ran for Congress the first time, in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson ran for president on a platform of a war on poverty. The focus now has shifted from the economy to social issues, which makes it harder to find ways to compromise.

“We’re having the wrong debate,” he said. “The social issues have been so much harder for the candidates to deal with. Demonize the opponent has become the chief concern for campaigns. This approach is toxic to our political system.”

Candidates should be talking more boldly about job creation, in particular how those whose jobs will be lost due to technology and globalization will find new employment, and in what fields. They also need to address poverty, which keeps half the population down.

“We can’t keep being number one by having half of our talent rising,” Hamilton said. “We have to bring everyone on deck to get the job done. Economic growth is the key that opens many doors. Politicians have to place a lot more emphasis on economic growth.”

Beyer, a senior history and political science major, found the talk inspiring as a future politician.

“I want to be that person out there who wants to change the system for the better,” he said. “I want to be a voice of reason.”

Michell Chanley, a junior from Logansport, thinks of herself as an optimist, and appreciated Hamilton’s closing, to keep hope alive.

“With his long background in politics, it was interesting to hear what he said,” she said.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 09/29/2016