Over the years, I've met with a lot of high-school and college students, and there's one question they come up with time after time: What, they want to know, is politics really about?
Having spent a good part of my life in the trenches, I long ago arrived at an answer that I thought reflected reality and was sufficiently cynical to make me believable. Politics, I would tell them, is about power: getting it, keeping it, and using it to advance one's agenda.
At least, that's what I said until I ran across a comment by the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who died recently. He had a different, and far more useful, answer. Politics is about "the search for remedy," he said.
We live at a time when such a belief seems outdated and hopelessly earnest. Americans have watched their politicians over the years with increasing skepticism, and come to the belief that politics is about anything but an honest effort to resolve the issues that confront us. It's about personal egos. It's about enriching oneself. It's about winning elections or wielding power for its own sake.
What's disheartening is that politicians themselves have contributed to this abandonment of sincerity. Often they - and especially their consultants - talk about politics as a highly technical and fascinating game whose largest purpose is to experience the thrill of victory. In one of this year's gubernatorial primaries, there's a leading candidate whose advertising ends in the tagline, "The only Republican who can win in November." Don't get me wrong; electability is hardly irrelevant to a primary voter. But should it be the chief thing we look for in a political leader?
What Schlesinger invited us to do was to search beneath the definitions we've given politics over the years, and to find an underlying purpose. All those "abouts" you hear now - it's about ego, it's about money, it's about power - are partly true, or at least, true in certain cases. But they're inadequate when it comes to describing what politics in a democracy is truly about: It's how we wrestle with and try to resolve the challenges that confront us.
To see why this is so important, think for a moment about some of the tremendously difficult issues we face. There is a constant barrage in Washington right now of finger-pointing and ex post facto analysis of what went wrong in Iraq. These have their place, if only because we should learn from our mistakes, but seen through the lens of Schlesinger's formulation they are political sideshows. The real challenge is to devise a remedy to the situation at hand that can be embraced and implemented by a divided government. That is what true politicians are spending their time on.
So, too, with our health care system. There hasn't been an all-out effort to tackle the many issues that assail it since the failure of the Clinton plan more than a decade ago. The result is that the system has grown more expensive, more wasteful, and less helpful to growing numbers of Americans. It is a situation that calls for politics at its best, an honest and concerted effort to find a remedy that is not only fair and lasting, but also can win the support of a diverse nation.
You'll notice that in both these examples I've added something to Schlesinger's phrase: that solutions have to be pragmatic and broadly acceptable. If politics at heart is a means to an end - the end being an actual fix to a problem - then it is not just about the search for an answer, but about making that answer work.
This means that the best politicians don't just dream up policy solutions regardless of context: They also think about how those solutions would work in the real world; they think about the forces that can help them and those that can block them; and perhaps above all, they think about how to build the broadest consensus possible behind their solutions, so that they have a realistic chance of taking root and flourishing.
Our next national election is a year and a half away. But as politicians start competing for your attention, I'd ask you to keep Schlesinger in mind. Are the people in front of you interested in constructive problem-solving? Can they engage wholeheartedly in "the search for remedy"? If so, they deserve our praise. If not, perhaps they - and we - would be better off if they spent some time out of office, contemplating what politics should really be about.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.