Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Graven In Stone

I was reading The Altantic's article on once (and possibly future) Florida Governor Charlie Crist over lunch today. Of course, it mentions the anger that he has sparked in people over his shift from Republican to Democrat. Many of the comments were predictable, slamming Crist for lacking a core or not being strong.

My first impulse was that this is the nature of winner-take-all politics and a desire on the part of voters to "buy" the "loyalty" of politicians with their votes - while voters complain about politicians who follow the majority wherever it goes, they want those same politicians to follow them wherever they go, hence the complaints about "ignoring the will of the people."

But while I was formulating that thought, I considered what a "strong politician with a core" would look like in reality. For the duration of that person's term in office, their policy stances would be a reflection of a majority of voters up until election day. And this would not change until the next election. And if that's the case, then why have politicians in the first place? Why not just vote on a set of policies and declare them inviolate for some span of years? If the idea behind political representation is to represent people, why only do that in the weeks leading up to an election?


The American electorate is notorious for its active, pervasive and deliberate disengagement from politics. And the demand for WYSIWYG politicians who will only alter their positions on issues during campaign season - if then - plays right into that. Even those people who come out to vote are often disengaged when it isn't election season. Politicians who (apparently) lock themselves into positions selected during the campaign season facilitate that disengagement. Moreover they actively discourage people from engaging with issues outside of campaign seasons - if a representative or other elected official is going to hold the exact same position on an issue mid-term as they did during the campaign, regardless of the majority of their constituents' current views, why even bother to engage with the issue at all before the next election? And if we expand this out to cover the entirety of a politician's career in a given office, one can disengage even further - you only have to consider politician's stances on issues when there isn't someone running that you already support.

Of course, I don't suspect that people consciously decide that they value constancy over engagement. I think that disengagement is simply most people's natural status quo. But I think that there is an understanding, even if an unconscious one, that demanding political fidelity makes disengagement less risky.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Democracy, whether direct or representative, is designed to punish those who value concern with their shadow over concern with the issues of the day. Great souls or not, we have suborned our politics into supporting our desire to be shut of it. I do not think that she should be satisfied with where that has lead us.

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