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Why fake news is dangerous

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.” He was talking about why education matters in a representative democracy, but it’s a safe bet that had he known about fake internet news, he’d have said the same thing—except maybe with more pointed words.

Our representative democracy depends on ordinary people making sound judgments about politicians and policy. This is hard to do at the best of times. To fold into that mix deliberately false news makes the citizen’s task much more difficult, maybe even impossible. Yet astoundingly, that’s where we find ourselves now. These days, purveyors of fake news get paid to mislead the public. Outside of criminal activities like bribery, it’s hard for me to imagine a greater disservice to our country.

Responsible media outlets are increasingly aware of the problem and are seeking ways to counteract it — as well as to call out politicians who blatantly traffic in misrepresentation. In coming years, real journalists’ ability to identify bogus stories, rebut ignorant claims that go viral, and stymie efforts at misinformation will be a vital part of their responsibilities.

Similarly, the platforms that have given an outlet to fake news—Facebook and other social media—are recognizing their obligation to fight it without compromising users’ access to the real stuff.

Which, of course, is what makes what to do about false news so devilishly difficult. When misinformation has spread in the past, we’ve always been able to depend on the truth catching up and eventually prevailing. Now, however, the circuits are being overloaded — not just by the proliferation of platforms and sources of information, but by people who are using the tools of democracy to undermine it. We must strive for an environment in which truth wins the day in the war over information.

I can’t pretend to know how we will ultimately help Americans sort through what’s truth and untruth, what’s serious argument and what’s propaganda, but I do know that this is one of the key battles of our time. Fake news is a threat to our system, a land mine that can cripple representative democracy by making a mockery of its most basic tenet: that the people will make the right decisions.

This is a challenge we need to address head on and without delay. The future of our representative democracy is at stake.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Trump’s challenges are just beginning

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

As hard as the campaign might have been and the transition is proving to be, Donald Trump’s challenges are really just beginning. Governing after a toxic election in which the results awarded him an ambiguous national mandate—his opponent, after all, got more votes—will require finesse, a clear-eyed view of his role in the world, and no small amount of luck.

He will soon find that the commitments and promises made during the campaign are going to be very hard to carry out. The new President’s number one priority almost certainly is going to be rebuilding U.S. economic power. A great many of the people who voted for him did so because they expect him to produce more good jobs, better incomes, and better economic opportunity.

But he faces great difficulties on this front, from persistent poverty and a decaying infrastructure to rapid technological and global changes that make it harder for people without a college education to find work. Plus, of course, a slow-moving Congress and an entrenched bureaucracy.

Other domestic issues he addressed in the campaign will prove no easier to pursue. Donald Trump campaigned on replacing Obamacare, a position that President-Elect Trump began to moderate within days of winning the election. He has not set out a comprehensive alternative — simply keeping the popular parts and jettisoning the rest, which he suggested he might do, is not an acceptable or workable option.

He has made clear that he wants to enact large tax cuts, especially on businesses, while at the same time spending billions on infrastructure improvements. Most evaluations of his policy proposals suggest that deficits will explode under his program. We’ll see how much stomach Congress and the country have for sending deficits spiraling upward.

Others of the President-elect’s programs—slashing regulations on financial institutions, on worker protections, and on environmental impacts–would create major changes in American policy at home. These, too, will arouse much opposition.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump effectively captured the discontent and anger of many Americans. With his proposals, he has upended the political order with a new brand of politics and policies. My guess is that he is on a steep learning curve, having under-estimated the difficulties and over-estimated his capabilities to deal with them. We should all extend the President-elect the benefit of the doubt, be vigilant, and see how his presidency unfolds before becoming judgmental.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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An issue we should no longer ignore 

 

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee Hamilton

Americans understand that our nation’s strength and security depend on its fiscal health. But we face an ongoing, long-term mismatch between our spending and revenues, and year after year, administration after administration, the debt grows larger.

A lot of ordinary people worry about this. They believe that a healthy fiscal situation is essential to our success as a nation. And they want policies in place that allow us to address the debt without interfering with the economic wellbeing of the country.

The presidential candidates aren’t giving serious attention to deficit reduction, and neither, for the most part, are members of Congress. Yet with a rising proportion of older people and spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare growing dramatically, we’re not far away from facing dangerous levels of debt. A fix is becoming increasingly urgent, and the longer we delay the more difficult it will be.

So what do we do? The solutions flow along three broad lines: spending cuts, tax increases, and economic growth. There are advocates for each, but it is hard to imagine that salvation lies in one approach alone. We need them all: a combination of tax increases, spending cuts in both defense and non-defense areas, and economic growth that will stabilize debt at a manageable level.

Each is difficult. Capitol Hill’s preferred tactic when it comes to taxes is to cut them, not increase them. On the spending side, the rhetoric coming from Washington—and out on the campaign trail—raises unrealistic expectations about the savings that can be achieved through budget cuts. Most proposals fall far short of what is needed, and the demands we face on entitlement programs, the country’s evident need for public investment, and higher interest rates on the debt are all powerful forces pushing in the opposite direction.

Still, the three-pronged solution I’ve outlined is privately acknowledged by almost everyone I’ve encountered, whatever their public position, to be the only realistic approach. The longer we delay, the more painful the adjustment will be.

Our system has met greater challenges in the past. We’ve been through a civil war, two world wars, waves of immigration unseen by any other nation, and we’ve managed them all. It took strong political leadership, bipartisanship, negotiation, and compromise to thread our way through. That’s what getting our debt under control will require. We’d better get started.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Do the presidential debates help us choose wisely 

 

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

We’re in the middle of the presidential debates, and not surprisingly, they’re drawing viewers in great numbers.

This is hardly a bad thing. Overall, presidential debates are a plus for the public dialogue. Yet I think our focus on debates—at least in the form they currently take — is misplaced: they don’t actually help us make a good choice. Here’s why:

I’ve sat in on a lot of meetings at the White House where foreign and domestic policy was discussed. Presidents want to hear different opinions, seek advice, and then go off and make a decision. The choices a president has to make are often very difficult — almost by definition, an issue doesn’t get to that level unless it’s a tough one. What this means is that the real quality you’re looking for in a President is judgment: the ability to consider issues from all angles, weigh options carefully, and then choose the wisest course —s ometimes from among a tangle of unpalatable alternatives.

The qualities necessary to do this do not come through in the debates, which tell us very little about how candidates would do at exercising judgment in the fog of policy-making. A campaign event that calls for impassioned oratory, a quick wit, one-liners, and sharp digs is not especially helpful for helping us choose who is going to make the best decisions.

I think we can do better. Selecting a president is serious business. We want to put control of the process on the voters’ side, and not let the candidates get away with fluff.

How do we do this? We change the nature of the debates. To begin with, I believe there should be a series of them, each focused on a single issue—education, say, or national security. Candidates should face a panel of questioners asking them to address the toughest questions on those matters who will press them when they spout mush. Ideally, the candidates should face this panel one at a time, rotating who goes first, and with other rules to assure fairness.

The point is we want voters to go to the polls not just with a good idea of where the candidates want to take us but how they’re going to get there. We also want voters to have a clear sense of how sound the candidates’ judgment is, because that’s ultimately what will make or break their presidency.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.

; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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A sobering look beyond the election 

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

This campaign year has been full of twists and turns. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone on November 8. So talking about what comes afterward seems premature. But it’s been on my mind a lot, because I’m worried.

This is not about who wins the presidency. I’m concerned about the aftermath of this campaign season and how hard it’s going to be for our next set of elected officials, from the President on down, to govern.

Let’s start with the belief expressed by a lot of people—including some candidates—that the system is “rigged.” This is a perilous way to treat the country’s political system: it sows distrust in future election results, de-legitimizes winners, and undermines the government’s credibility. Without a basic foundation of trust, representative government crumbles.

Instead of taking aim at “the system,” we could instead focus our criticism on politicians, including the two presidential candidates, who have failed to serve us well in their debate on the economy.

Much of it has revolved around immigration, trade, and other issues of the moment. But our real economic challenge is how to provide meaningful work and good wages to tens of millions of people whose jobs are disappearing because of globalization, automation, and other irreversible changes in how work is accomplished. Economic growth is the key that unlocks many doors and is the preferred course to ease the anxiety and cynicism abroad in the country.

The problem is, this election isn’t providing us with a substantial policy debate on that or any other issue. Indeed, if anything characterizes this election, it’s the politics of personal destruction. This approach is toxic for democratic institutions and political culture. We have to be able to disagree in this country without tearing into and trying to destroy the opposition.

All of this — the attacks on the system, the lack of meaningful debate about improving Americans’ economic future, the generally substance-free nature of the campaign, the politics of demonization—will make it very hard for whoever wins office to govern well.

It used to be that when a president came into office, a substantial majority of the American people gave him the benefit of the doubt, and with it an extended period in which to get things done. I don’t believe that’s going to happen after this election. And all Americans will be worse off as a result.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Why this Democrat wants a strong Republican Party 

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

I’ve been a Democrat all my life. I believe in the party’s values, I’m pleased when its candidates win elections, and I’m persuaded the country is better off when Democratic ideas get a fair shake in the public arena. But none of this means that I favor a weak Republican Party. Indeed, just the opposite.

Before my Democratic friends drum me out of the party’s ranks, let me explain why.

The short answer is, our nation is stronger and our representative democracy healthier when we have two strong parties. A single political party that’s able to dominate public policy-making undermines the give-and-take that’s crucial to effective policy and leaves us weaker as a country.

Why is this? Let’s start with the big picture. If you think about the issues we confront—from the impact of climate change to the fight against terrorism to rebuilding an economy that serves poor and working families as well as it does the wealthy—it’s hard to argue that a single perspective or ideology really has all the answers. None of us, and neither political party, has a monopoly on wisdom.

Moreover, this country is huge and varied, and the legitimacy of the political system rests on its ability to give voice to the multitude of concerns and attitudes held by the American people. Some prefer the GOP’s approach, others the Democrats’, but it’s important they all have a political party to turn to. The more people feel that no one represents them or their views, the more alienated they become from the democratic process.

So the country benefits when two robust parties face off — in elections, in Congress, and in the 50 legislatures. When they can present their views, defend them, adjust them, and negotiate, compromise, and move forward, we’re being well served.

Which brings me to the Republican Party of today. I don’t want to get into the split between backers of Donald Trump and the traditional Republican leadership—that’s for the GOP to sort out, and they certainly don’t want the advice of an old Democrat. But there’s no doubt that the Republican Party has reached a crossroads.

If Trump wins the presidency, he’ll be the chief actor in determining the future of his party and what it stands for. If he loses, the GOP will more than likely move back toward its more traditional views as a party that embraces the free market, advocates for a muscular approach to national security, believes in American exceptionalism and our role in leading the world away from chaos, is filled with fiscal hawks who think that we have to curb entitlement programs, and pays attention to a business community that believes trade wars—especially with Mexico or China—would be catastrophic.

I suppose I’m showing my biases here, but I believe that a robust Republican Party will strengthen its willingness to improve and broaden the policy debate and move it away from steps to impede it. This would be a GOP that advocates for limited government, wants to reform our unwieldy tax code, and is determined to remain fiscally responsible so that deficits don’t explode. I want to see Republicans tackle our healthcare system by reforming it using market mechanisms. I want Republicans to confront regulations that hamper the formation and growth of businesses, especially small businesses. And I want them to remain inclined toward devolving power away from Washington, giving states more control over such basic responsibilities as highways, welfare, and education.

Each of these issues has been at the center of the national agenda for many years, suggesting their difficulty. We need proposals from both sides that are realistic, coherent, and based on numbers that add up. We need parties that are at the top of their game, generating solutions to the issues we confront that can get vetted in Congress, and be amended and reshaped to reflect the realities of a divided country. And we need parties that are prepared to negotiate to move us beyond our current gridlock.

This can best happen when a healthy Republican Party is competing with a healthy Democratic Party. And at the moment, that’s not what we’re seeing.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Social Media’s Challenge to Democracy

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee Hamilton

I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of a lifetime, and have spoken at a lot of public meetings over the years. There’s one question, I think, that I’ve heard more than any other: “If I want to be an informed citizen, which sources of information should I consult?”

For many years, I had a set answer for this. Read one or more of the respected national news sources, I’d respond. I’m not sure how good that answer was at the time, but I know for certain it would be inadequate now.

The internet and social media have upended our expectations of what it means to be well informed. Platforms and websites that take advantage of online and mobile connectivity are like a firehose, providing enormous quantities of information, opinion, news, statements, videos, images, analysis, charts, graphs—all of it instantly available.

The question is what impact does this have on the public dialogue, and on representative democracy?

Clearly, these are powerful tools. As the rise of the Tea Party and the alarm over price increases for the EpiPen demonstrate, they can galvanize large, energetic groups of people who oppose a specific target. They make more information quickly available from more sources. They give citizens multiple ways to engage the attention and interest of policy makers—and give policy makers multiple ways to gauge public opinion and seek to understand the interests and needs of constituents.

But if information has become more ubiquitous and powerful, so has misinformation. It spreads rapidly, passed along from user to user with no check. Posts tend to have no room for nuance; arguments can be explosive and arguers aggressive; drama and hysteria fuel polarization; special interests can’t help but take advantage of the context-free nature of social media.

The key question is: Does the ubiquity of information really help citizens understand complex issues, weigh competing arguments, and reach discriminating judgments about politics?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a mixed bag. Certainly, the information world we live in today is putting more stress on individual voters to make discriminating choices and on our representative democracy, which rests on institutions that were designed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our political process has proved resilient over centuries, but social media poses a powerful challenge. They’ve brought great gifts and equally great risks, and we’d be prudent to be cautious.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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The media’s responsibility to our democracy 

 

By Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

Politicians spend a good bit of their time complaining about the media. But why should they have all the fun?

I’m going to join in, though I tend to get upset about different things than most sitting politicians do. You see, I don’t actually mind when journalists—whether in print, on television or online—treat what politicians say with skepticism. That means they’re doing their jobs.

But this doesn’t happen nearly as much these days as it should. The media today is less objective, more ideological, and much showier than it once was. What you see can be eye-catching—both the graphics and the personalities—but it is also brash and relentlessly self-promoting. A lot of journalists don’t just want to report the news, they want to be players and affect policy. They see politics as a blood sport, often exaggerating the differences among players.

As one observer said, the media is drawn to “superficiality, sensationalism, scandal, and sleaze.” They’re all too happy to seize on small points of contention and fan them into major points of discord. They make building a consensus—the key task of the democratic process—much harder.

The field has been moving in this direction over decades, and there’s a reason for it: all these changes have been well received by the public. They draw viewers, readers and clicks. And they’ve encouraged consumers to pay attention only to the sources that reflect and broadcast their own viewpoint.

I don’t want to be a fogey here. Yes, I grew up in the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and I still think they were solid journalists, but what I miss is not the voice-of-authority-from-on-high that’s so often associated with them. Instead, what I too often find lacking now is the spirit that drove the profession in those days. I think the news media had a sense of responsibility to make representative democracy function. Journalists imbued their work with a palpable sense that they were involved in a public service.

There are still really excellent journalists out there who are doing their best to serve both their profession and the country. Every day they struggle to make sense of enormously complex events. What they understand, and what I wish more of their colleagues believed, is that democracy demands journalism that improves its workings. Properly done, journalism can bridge differences, help consensus emerge, improve the knowledge and judgment of voters, and sharpen the performance of public officials and government as a whole.

In the end, the democratic process is about overcoming disagreement. This is virtually impossible without a solid base of information and analysis.

Governing well is immensely difficult, and good journalism can keep government open and honest, which serves not just the voters, but politicians who are trying to resolve the problems facing the country. Journalists can and should be watchdogs, keeping a watchful eye on politicians, what they do, what they say…and what they don’t do or say. They should serve not just the elites, but the underdogs and have-nots in society.

The independence of our press was hard to win, and it’s vital that we sustain it. People must have sources they can rely on in order to make our system work. Our democracy needs well-informed citizens making decisions based on facts about both policies and politicians.

This means that the model of the journalist that seems to be going out of fashion—reporters who were reasonably objective, independent of outside groups, and even independent of their company’s owners—is actually crucial to representative government. Curious, skeptical journalists who point out inconsistencies, draw attention to mistakes, call out misleading statements, and identify outright lies serve a larger purpose: they provide citizens what they need to know in order to be a good citizen, and public officials what they need in order to do their work well.

This is quite an ideal, especially in this age of economic turmoil within the media universe. But I don’t think it’s too much to hope that as the profession sorts out its future, it takes seriously its leadership role in advancing the public good, and doesn’t sacrifice its part in making representative democracy work properly.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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What does Congress need? Your attention!

 

By Lee Hamilton

Now that the conventions are over, I know that all eyes are on the fall presidential campaign. But I’m going to ask you to shift your focus a bit, to Congress. Don’t do it as a favor to me. Do it as a favor to the country.

Congress is in the midst of a seven-week break. Its members left Washington in mid-July; they’ll be back after Labor Day. They did manage to do a few things, like pass legislation providing resources for combating the heroin and opioid crisis. But what they left undone is astonishing. They departed without dealing with a $1.1 billion measure to combat the Zika virus. They didn’t take up immigration or tax reform or gun legislation. They left behind a pile of spending bills, which means they’ll have about four weeks once they return to figure out how to keep the government operating. Yet again.

We’re all tired of this. I don’t think a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me, “What can we do about it?” So let me tell you.

First, the system can work. What we’ve seen in recent years on Capitol Hill does not need to be the future. But it takes skill to forge consensus, make tradeoffs, assuage egos, and accommodate the vastly different points of view that are inevitable in a diverse nation. And it takes determination to overcome the inevitable setbacks and stumbling blocks in order to govern.

The problem is, Congress has shown virtually no interest in this. Its members are very good at attacking political opponents, and not so adept at governing.

So what kind of qualities would produce a more productive body? Simply put, members who have a sense of responsibility to the country and to the institution envisioned by our Founders; who understand their special role in making Congress an effective institution; who cooperate across the aisle—not merely in rhetoric, or when they’re standing in front of the cameras, but also when they’re drafting legislation; who can construct a bill and get it passed; who know how to legislate in order to affect change, not merely score political points; who want to safeguard Congress’s role as a co-equal branch of government, not pass power to the President, the Fed, or the bureaucracy.

Many current members of Congress have never seen these qualities in action, but the committee rooms and chambers they inhabit certainly have. Sam Rayburn of Texas brought rural electrification into being and transformed the lives of millions. George Fallon of Maryland shaped the interstate highway system, which in one way or another has affected every American life. Democrat Emanuel Celler and Republican William McCullough brought civil rights legislation to the country. Edith Green of Oregon was the mother of Title IX. Talented legislators—Carl Albert, Mike Mansfield, Barber Conable, Louis Stokes, and Lindy Boggs—were skilled at helping their colleagues see their way to compromise; they took pleasure in making Congress work. And it wasn’t just leaders. The success of Congress over the years has depended upon members who were not well known but who took their responsibilities seriously and believed the institution simply had to work.

My point is, we’ve had a functional Congress before. That means we can produce one again.

But I choose those words “we” and “produce” carefully. Making it happen depends on you. As a voter, you have to go beyond asking about the candidates’ positions on substantive issues. In addition, you have to judge whether a candidate has the will and the capability to reassert the role of Congress, to get legislation passed, and to work with colleagues who don’t necessarily agree with them.

My fear is that, just as many contemporary members of Congress have never seen an effective Congress and show few signs of knowing how to make it work, perhaps voters have simply stopped expecting it. Voters have legitimate reasons to be discouraged about Congress. But they should remember the recent past, which shows that with the right kind of legislators, Congress can get things done—and they should begin to reject politicians who have proven again and again that they can’t get anything done.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Where the election stands 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-colorBy Lee H. Hamilton

The next few weeks in politics are a little like the All-Star break in baseball. With the Republican and Democratic national conventions upon us, it’s a good time to step back and assess this year’s election. Which carries bad news for both parties.

The Republicans face a steep electoral challenge. If Hillary Clinton carries Florida (where polling shows a very close race) plus the District of Columbia and the 19 states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six presidential elections, she wins.

Yet victory for Donald Trump is hardly out of the question. He floated through the Republican primaries by tackling the anger and discontent that course through this year’s electorate. His talk about a broken system and his emphatic, brash style, appeals to a lot of people. His ability to dominate news coverage without spending much on advertising has been extraordinary. And even though he’s passed through a difficult period for his campaign, the polls have grown quite close.

On the other hand, the Republican Party is splintered and off its game. Its leaders are having a difficult time with a Trump candidacy. A sizable number of GOP stars are finding excuses not to attend the convention, which is remarkable.

Yet the Democrats should take no comfort from this state of affairs. For starters, below the presidential level the party is struggling. Since 2008, Democrats have lost 69 seats in the U.S. House, 13 Senate seats, 12 governorships, and over 900 seats in state legislatures.

And while Clinton’s path to the presidency may be wider than Trump’s, that doesn’t mean she’s a strong candidate — at least, not this year. At a moment when voters clearly want change, she appears to favor incrementalism as the way to get things done in Washington. And despite the FBI’s decision that it wouldn’t bring criminal charges on her handling of emails when she was Secretary of State, the issue is clearly dogging her.

The British vote on Brexit is a reminder that resentments and anger can fly under the radar. Washington, where there’s money everywhere you turn, is a ripe target for “take-our-country-back” populism. The anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood should make both parties uneasy.

But then, so should the course of this election, which has put a premium on sound and fury at the cost of true engagement with the issues confronting the country. On that score, we all lose.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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