Lee Hamilton: Why do politicians run for office?

If you followed this year’s elections, at some point the question probably occurred to you: Why do people do this? The endless campaign events, the constant scrutiny … and increasingly, the very real and alarming threat of political violence. What drives someone to put up with it all?

I suspect that if you asked a roomful of politicians, you’d get a roomful of answers. For many people, there’s no single motivation, and in all my years of talking to other politicians, I’ve never found one reason that predominates.

But I have found some common threads. For one thing, it’s hard to find a more challenging job. The range and complexity of the problems an elected official faces are astounding; I’ve never met a politician with a short to-do list. Politics is as intellectually challenging as any occupation I can imagine, and when you succeed at somehow changing your community or state or country for the better, it’s also as satisfying. One thing I can certainly say: I’ve encountered plenty of accomplished people in other professions who’ve told me that, after a certain point in their careers, they got a bit bored. Not once have I heard a politician say that he or she was bored. Stretched for time, certainly. Frustrated, often. But bored? Never.

I suspect part of the reason is that few other professions put you in touch with as many people of different viewpoints, lifestyles, backgrounds, and convictions. If you’re really serious as a politician in the United States, you engage with conservatives, liberals, voters of every station in life, people of deep faith, people of no faith, and every possible ethnic identity. It’s one of the great attractions of the job: the chance to meet an unforgettable array of citizens.

In recent years, it’s sometimes seemed to me that more people each election are getting involved because they’re angry: They’re motivated by something the Supreme Court did, or they believe the people in power are taking their towns or states or the US in the wrong direction. But then I remember that negative feelings have always been a strong motivator — after all, we have a United States because people rose up against policies imposed on them by the king and British politicians. Over my time watching politics, I’ve met plenty of people who were motivated to get involved because something happened at some level of government that angered them.

At the same time, though, I’ve also met plenty of people who were motivated by idealism. I was one of them: I first ran for office because I wanted to make a contribution to my country. It was nothing fancier than that. That is still true of many politicians.

Though as anyone who’s run for office knows, it is a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, it takes money. It’s not like you’re handed a check by the government to run for elective office. It’s been many decades since this happened, but I still remember that, when I decided to run for Congress in the early 1960s, I went to visit a community leader in a part of southern Indiana. At the end, he wished me luck and gave me a check for $100. It was a splendid moment. I later told him how crucial that had been — giving someone who had nothing to spend on a campaign some funds. His act of generosity gave me hope that I might be able to pull it off.

Then, too, I think many people who run for office — and certainly those who get elected — are driven by a search for power. From afar, you can see what holding elected office allows: the chance to change things. But once you’re in office, you come to recognize that progress is measured in inches: You might be able to get a new bridge or library built, but just as often, obstacles stand in the way that make it impossible.

Yet somehow, people keep running. In the end, I think it’s because they understand a simple thing: There’s no United States without democracy, no democracy without politics, and no politics without people willing to become politicians.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser 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. Send comments to [email protected]