Represent?

December 12, 2011

Political Theory


Last February, huge protests erupted in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin over the governor’s proposed budget bill that would strip unions of many rights. Among the many “If You Can Read This Thank a Teacher” and “Stop the Attack on Worker Rights” signs, there were a surprising number of signs like the one below.

A disgruntled voter regrets his decision at the polls.

Regardless of whether or not Governor Walker deceived Wisconsin voters, this sentiment brings up an interesting issue: the role of representatives in regards to their constituency.

John F. Kennedy lays this issue out clearly in his book, Profiles in Courage1. Should representatives merely serve as a “seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion” (p.15)? Or are they “entitled to ignore the demands of [their] constituents” (p.11)? He concludes that voters vote for candidates they trust to make the right decisions for their constituency as a part of the nation’s best interests. I think that it is fair to assume that Kennedy didn’t just decide that on his own, many political theorists, including many we have studied, probably influenced his thinking.

The theories of liberalism and liberal democracy, influenced by Locke’s pro-participation stance, are based on a belief that individuals are the best judges of their own good, and that democratic decisions are more stable than decisions of an individual. This would seem to support the “seismograph” view—that representatives should listen to their constituencies and simply act as an envoy between them and the government. However, as a simple messenger, a representative would undoubtedly become a tool of the majority. And even Mill, a famous liberal, doubted utilitarianism because of a fear of a tyranny of the majority.

While liberalism offers a slightly muddled opinion, classical Conservatism is directly opposed to absolute deference to the constituency. Influenced by the Hobbesian view that the people authorize a ruler to rule on behalf of them because people are too stupid and lazy to keep up with politics, Burke argues that a good politician decides for himself. Think of it in terms of any other profession. A doctor or an electrician acting on the advise of a layperson is dangerous, so why wouldn’t it be dangerous for a politician to do the same? Conservatives argue that politicians are trained to do their jobs, and have access to more information than the common people, they are therefore in a position to make a much better decision than their constituents.

Kennedy reconciles these liberal and conservative views in the context of US government, saying, “The voters selected us, in short, because they had confidence in our judgment and our ability to exercise that judgment from a position where we could determine what were their own best interests” (p. 15) and following that his view that politicians expect “their constituents to be the final judges of the wisdom of their course” (p. 15). In saying this, Kennedy acknowledges that politicians are usually in a better place to make decisions than their constituents, but doesn’t count the common people out of the decision making all together. Is this the correct goal to aim for? Have we really accomplished this in America?

1References in this post are to: Kennedy, John F., Profiles in Courage. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

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2 Comments on “Represent?”

  1. schoemad Says:

    I personally think that it has to be a mixture of both representing the people and making decisions based on your own beliefs. If they were to take either of the extremes, they would definitely rule ineffectively. When I elect a person to take office, I am looking for someone who will be able to listen and represent the people, but also someone who will make intelligent decisions based off all the resources at their disposal. There is no reason to expect that a representative will be able to accomplish everything that is on the agenda. It is also very hard to completely represent all the people in a group, therefore representatives need to decide what is higher on their list of priorities. In general, there are a lot of factors that will affect how a politician will rule, but it’s important that they can make decisions that will both benefit themselves and their constituents in the future.

  2. weinben Says:

    Naturally, an elected leader must be somewhat loyal to the stances he adapted during his or her election process, as this platform is the reason why people voted for them in the first place. It would seem unethical and deceiving if a politician ran his campaign on the basis of certain believes and values to simply court a voter base, and then, once in office, disregard everything he or she had said and promised and ran his business according to only his own vision. Such a person would surely not be elected again! So, almost by definition, a political leader is supposed to be a representative of a group of people, who must make decisions and choices based off of what would be best for not only the entire nation, but choices that his constituents would likely agree with. However, a leader is also in charge of all those who did not vote for him, and must realize that he is responsible for the wellbeing of every person under his jurisdiction, not just those who voted him in. However, if I were to chose a politician in the mold of either a Lockean or a Burke follower, I would chose a man who would adhere more to Burke. Oftentimes, what the masses want is not the best way to go about things, and it takes a strong man to not cave into the threats of the masses and mob-style coercion. He was elected because his followers believe he has their best interests at heart while being able to provide for the benefit of everybody, and that might take some maverick style decision making to ensure the best, long lasting result.

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