Thursday, October 31, 2013

Representation Without Representation

File under: Oh Noes! Other People's Representatives Do What They're Asked!

Nevada Assemblyman Jim Wheeler went on the record saying that if his constituents wanted slavery, then he'd vote (very reluctantly) to legalize slavery. And is being pilloried for it. Alexander Abad-Santos, over at The Atlantic Wire says: "And let's put it this way, if Wheeler's constituents in Nevada's District 39 ever believe in resurrecting slavery, we're all in trouble." But isn't this what it means to represent a constituency? That you advocate for their interests?

"If that’s [slavery] what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose … they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah."
This is a problem with the common American conceptualization of what legislatures are about. Whether or not the job of a legislator is to substitute their judgment for that of their constituents on matters of morality is subject to debate. Generally speaking, most people in the United States want their legislators to vote in a way that reflects their values and interests. But they also tend to want other people's legislators to also vote in a way that reflects their values and interests, rather than those of the voters to whom that legislator is answerable. This is often, cynically, termed "political courage," as it's supposedly courageous to ignore the wishes of people who elected you to, well, carry out their wishes, in favor of people who live somewhere else, and think that they know better. For those of you who wonder why "political courage" is so rare, this strikes me as a pretty good reason.
Assemblyman Wheeler is doing the job as he understands it's supposed to be done - rather than vote his own conscience, he votes his constituents' conscience (well, the conscience of a majority of the people who voted, anyway), whether he understands that conscience to be sound or not. If the population of Nevada (let alone of the 39th District) ever become pro-slavery enough that Assemblyman Wheeler actually has to wrestle with whether or not to vote their will, or let them blow his brains out, yes, we're all in trouble - but not because of Wheeler's loyalty to his constituency; by that point, it goes well beyond that.

"The purpose of the Constitution was to preserve the Declaration of Independence's right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' The word 'virtue' is not included in that phrase. Its omission is the single greatest innovation of the United States' founding."
Andrew Sullivan "Crisis of Faith" The New Republic, 25 April, 2005
I get that slavery is the United States' version of Nazism - an unambiguous Evil (or maybe even Eeeevil) that everyone must be against on general principles to be understood as properly human, let alone a respectable American. While I'm not sure that Mr. Sullian would approve of me quoting him in this context, his point still stands - our system of government was not put in place simply to legitimize what would, by necessity, be a certain minority of the public coding into law their own pre-determined understanding of what was right and proper. Enlightenment is not a pre-requisite for self-, or representative, government. We've allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the idea that when government knows best, it should hand the citizenry a fait accompli and set about sanctioning those who disagree. But this frees those who support what they understand to be correct way of doing things from having to lobby the public as to the correctness of their cause. Instead, they can simply write them off as stupid or bigoted and go on about their way. And that has always been where the trouble started.


John McGuinness said...

Well, there's another constituency that representatives can vote with or against, and that is their political party. Sometimes political courage is defined as voting against one's party leadership (for or against the wishes of the constituents). When constituents vote for a candidate, part of what they are voting for is the "brand" of the party.

SO, it seems there's three pressures in place.

* The representatives values and beliefs.
* The wishes of the constituents.
* The platform and direction of the political party.

I'm not sure what the optimal balance is for these factors, or if there is one constant balance, but each does play a role. No political party has a pro-slavery platform, so by voting for slavery, the representative would be hurting his party, which presumably helped him achieve his position.

And I write this as someone who thinks one of our biggest current problems is the degree to which the political parties have captured our values.

Aaron said...

Well said! I for my part think that there's no agreed-upon balance between the three, and I'm down with that.