I am lucky enough these days to be in regular touch with young people who are interested in public service. I find hope in their quality, energy, and motivation, and they press me to think more deeply about what it takes to pursue a life in the public realm.
I’ve come to believe that at the heart of it all — indeed, at the heart of representative democracy itself — is persuasion. If you’re trying to improve society you have to persuade other people: the only way to get things done is to convince other people to join in.
I once was fortunate to have a long conversation with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a minister of the gospel and a civil rights leader, I was a politician, yet I was struck that we shared an abiding interest in how you persuade people to your side.
I saw the same quality in another masterful public figure, Lyndon Johnson. When he had members of his cabinet speak to assembled members of Congress, he would take a seat in the front row and turn his chair around so that his back was to the speaker. He wasn’t interested in what they were saying; he was interested in the impact of what they said. In other words, he was interested in whether or not they were persuasive.
In a democracy like ours, you need help from allies, partners, friends, sometimes even antagonists — because you’re trying to find common ground and build coalitions of support. To convince them, you have to listen carefully, learn what’s important to them, and appeal to their values and interests.
Above all, you have to master the facts and know the arguments on all sides. When I was in Congress, I was struck by how members appealed to people who often had different backgrounds and priorities: they mentioned precedents, sought to connect to their listeners’ core values, compared their proposals to the alternatives, and cited the experts.
This is how we decide things in this country: we listen, we argue, we cajole, we compromise, and we persuade.
The whole process can get untidy. But here’s what I tell the students thinking of going into public service: that it is an extraordinary privilege to be part of a system, representative democracy, that gives you the opportunity to persuade others, and by doing so to chart the future course.
— Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.