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.
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.