Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Saletan and Representation

William Saletan has a piece out that I think is going to be very popular, but I also think is very wrong.  It's about the proper role of politicians; it's about representation, and democracy.  It's about, that is, important stuff.  And while I've seen others make the assertions that Saletan makes over the last few months, I think he has the full argument, so I'm going to dwell on it a fair amount, with a two-part response.

Before I start -- I can say on the plus side that I think Saletan is correct about the claims of Republicans (and Pat Caddell, whatever he is these days) about the public opinion polls.  It would be foolish to assume that the polls are a result of careful consideration of the health care bill, and foolish to assume that the polls about the bill, and especially just the top line numbers from the polls, are a good predictor of how people will feel about the bill six months, or six years, into the future. As I've said before, politicians will need to use their judgment on this one.

Now, however, I get to the main argument.  Saletan says:
Democracy isn't about doing what might sell in the next election. It's about doing what you promised in the last one. If you're in Congress, and if you think this bill is good for the country, vote for it. Even if it costs you your job.
There are actually two serious ideas here, and he develops them over the course of the piece.  One is that a politician should do what's right, not what's popular.  I'll take that on in a second post.  The other is about representation; Saletan believes that only Burkean "trustee" or "independence" representation is in accord with the Constitution. That's what this post is about.

Saletan, again, to Members of Congress:
Your job description is in the nation's founding documents. The Constitution specifies representative democracy, not direct democracy. The Declaration of Independence explains that to secure citizens' rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The consent authorizes powers, not bills. And it precedes the exercise of those powers. Your job now is to use your powers wisely.
Yes, the Constitution does create a system of representative democracy, not direct democracy.  But how are those representatives supposed to decide?   The Constitution is silent about that.  We can suppose (and here I'm following Hanna Pitkin) that Saletan is correct at one extreme; if Members simply take a poll about everything and do whatever the poll tells them, then they're not really "representing" them.  But, Pitkin argues, the other extreme -- in which the elected official does whatever she wants, regardless of what the people say they want -- isn't really "representation" either.  For her, representation is a way of making present someone (the constituents) who aren't actually present.  And so they have to be with the politician, in some sense, but not completely overwhelming him.

The next step is where to draw that line, and for me the place to go for that is the political scientist Richard Fenno, who has made a career of following politicians around and listening to what they say, watching what they do.  What he finds, at least as I see it, is that what counts is the representational relationship developed between each politicians and her constituents.  Within that relationship are all sorts of promises about how a politician will act in office, and that's where one finds the answer to the question of where to draw the line.  It's not a universal answer (such as: "Elected officials should do what the voters want except in cases in which the pol is certain that the voters are wrong").  It's an answer that is specific to each representational relationship.  It can be simple ("we just trust her to do what's right" or "she does exactly what we want"), or it can be complex; Fenno writes about pols who had virtually no leeway at all on some issues, but could pretty much do whatever they wanted on others ("as long as I always vote pro-life and pro-gun, they really don't care what I do on foreign affairs").  (All quotes here are made-up, but not far from what one can find in Fenno's work, or from any observation of politicians).

So, I think Saletan is wrong to say that there's anything in the Constitution, or in the concept of representation, that specifies what kind of representative a Member of Congress should be.  What they should do is to keep their promises, whether they are substantive or style promises.  And for more of that, see the next post.

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