Thursday, March 18, 2010

More on Representation

After I said that politicians shouldn't try to do what's right -- instead, they should try to be good representatives -- Andrew Sullivan fired back:
The entire job of a politician is to discern what he or she thinks is right at any particular moment on any particular question. And of course they have a way of knowing what's right: it's called judgment and practical wisdom. For Jonathan to say that this is somehow not part of their role seems to miss a core part of human conduct and nature. 
I'll apologize right at the start for going on at some length's a topic, as regular readers probably have noticed by now, in which I have quite a bit of interest.  I should also say that while I do lean here on theorists and empirical students of representation, this is a case where I'm certainly not, er, representing political scientists here (sorry). 

I certainly agree that politicians should use, as Andrew says, "judgment and practical wisdom."  The question, however, is to what purpose those human attributes are put.  For the writer, the banner "Of No Party Or Clique" is, in my view, an honorable one.  What writers owe to their readers is the truth as they see it, and they have no master but their own beliefs tempered by reality.

Not so for politicians elected to office in a democracy.  They do have masters -- they serve their constituents.  They are in office, as Hanna Pitkin says, to re-present those constituents: to make them present, even though they are not present.  In doing so, they are guided by the contract they have with their constituents, which is composed of the promises the politician made while campaigning for office.  Some of those are about public policy: I will oppose abortion.  I will support a public option.  Some are partisan: I will be a Democrat.  Or, I will be a Democrat, but I'll side with the district if there's a conflict. 

The most interesting promises to me, however, are about what type of representative a politician will be.  My favorite contrast is between two Senators from New York who served together, Al D'Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  D'Amato was "Senator Pothole."  He promised to look out for New York, whether it was finding every last dollar of pork, or seeing every foreign policy question strictly in terms of ethnic rivalries and loyalties within the Empire State.  Moynihan, on the other hand, was a "national" Senator.  New Yorkers expected him to weigh in on important issues of the day, whether it was the proper role of the CIA or how to make Social Security work better.  The idea here is that these two Senators promised very different types of governing -- not (only) in terms of their positions on the issues, but in how they go about representing their constituents. 

Now, given their promises, Moynihan had far more independence in his actions than did D'Amato.  His representational relationship with New Yorkers would allow him to stand with Burke when he said, "Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."  

But that doesn't make him a better representative than one who promised, and then delivered, specific votes.  Good representation, following Richard Fenno, is about having a strong representational relationship.  And (and here I'm on my own, I think) it is not for me, or Andrew, or Burke, or Pitkin to say what sorts of representation are best.  That's a matter for each individual elected official and his or her constituents to work out for themselves.  Moreover, I argue that the ability to do this, to make promises, interpret them, govern with those promises and future explanations in mind, to explain what one has done, and then campaign again, is the real skill of politicians.  Of course that takes judgment, and it certainly takes practical wisdom.  A particular kind of judgment, however -- political judgment that helps a pol know how public policy decisions are related to what they've promised.  

I think I'm being too abstract here...take a pro-life Democrat.  Take Bart Stupak, for that matter.  What exactly has he promised?  How central to his campaign was abortion?  Health care?  Did he promise to reduce abortions (in which case a strong argument could be made that supporting health care reform would do that), or did he promise, above all, to toe the line on right-to-life issues, in which case all that matters is what the bishops or other authorities say.  How do promises about health care reform rank against promises about abortion?  How has he said he would make decisions?  Has he promised to always listen to the district?  To hold town hall meetings?  To vote his conscience, regardless of the consequences?  To support the president?  To consider what's best for the district?  Each of these are different promises, and may very well point to different choices (and sometimes very difficult choices) for the representative, and almost certainly will point to different ways of explaining his actions.  

And, again, my point is that as long as a politician fulfills her promises, and explains what she's doing in a way that strengthens her constituents' trust in her, then she's a good representative.  That's as much as we can say, at least as far as evaluation is concerned. For Edmund Burke to be a good representative, he must do as he promised the electors of Bristol, and act as he thinks best.  For a representative who promises to slavishly follow the whims of her constituents, well, she must do exactly that to be a good representative.*  And I suppose what I'm saying is that for politicians, from their point of view, there is no "what's right" beyond good representation.  Excepting, of course, the cases in which a representative has promised only to do what she thinks is right, and is elected to do so (in which case...ready?...doing "what's right" is right not because it's right but because she's fulfilling her promises by so doing).  To get back to Saletan -- yes, sometimes good representatives will lose elections, because of course there's more to elections than how much constituents have come to trust their Members of Congress.  But to the extent that voters do reward their politicians for fulfilling (all kinds of) promises, doing the right thing means doing just that.  And in the long run, that should tend to be good politics.

*My favorite examples of promises are gender and ethnic promises, generally made by "firsts" to hold some particular office.  Sometimes, it seems as if that's the only promise such a candidate makes -- to "be" Jewish, or Polish, or African American, or female, or gay.  Breaking that promise could be a matter of wearing the wrong clothes or eating the wrong foods, much more so than any particular "wrong" vote one could cast.  Often, by the next generation, those descriptive traits -- while still just as much there as before -- are no longer the subject of promises.  There are other kinds of promises, bound is Scott Brown to that pickup truck?


  1. But to the extent that voters do reward their politicians for fulfilling (all kinds of) promises, doing the right thing means doing just that. And in the long run, that should tend to be good politics.

    I'm not sure how much American history supports you here. I'm inclined to agree with Hofstadter that populism has generally been this country's chief vehicle for intolerance. Going back to the Know-Nothings, the populist uprising is rare that wasn't attended by bigot eruptions, not because crafty demagogues co-opt populist energies, but because that's what populism is in large part.

    The obvious exception was Depression-era populism (including Huey Long), but in that episode the populists were fighting for their lives, not merely to have their resentments assuaged. In the post-Depression era, ironically by the very fact of a fairly robust safety net and semi-reliable macro-economic management that are the legacy of the New Deal, it's a safe bet that future populist insurgencies won't be about food and jobs, but about immigrants, the flag, etc.

    Not that what you or I or Sully wishes matters much; the hyper-plugged-in citizenry is pretty much here to stay as far as I can see.

  2. Jonathan, I can't make a whole lot of sense out of this. The questions you ask about Stupak's "promises" are excellent ones, and would seem to highlight that he couldn't have "promised" in advance to answer those questions with any precision; his "promises" will be defined by how he chooses to vote. What he said while campaigning may well have left him free to vote his conscience on HCR; that decision and how he justifies it will define his "promises" as he runs for reelection.

    Your promised-based standard seems to obscure the fact that there *will* be times when the rep's own belief about what is right for the country or the district will conflict with what his voters say they want -- are we to believe that some reps implicitly "contract" to vote their consciences, and others their voters' preferences, and that one approach is not superior to another? Also, what if a rep acts in a way that accords both with her conscience and with voters' preferences -- and history clearly proves her choices wrong? Say she's "promised" always to preemptively attack countries that can be said to sponsor terror. Should we still judge that person a 'good' rep?

  3. As a Burkean, I have to disagree. Elections are incredibly poor tools for evaluating a package a policy proposals, especially given the rather large dependence they have on the state of the economy and popularity of the president, neither of which is under much of any control my any member of Congress.

    Plus, I'm generally with Madison on this: one of the advantages of representation over a plebiscitary democracy is "to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose." Naturally, I leave out the next line where he says that such a group might just as easily do bad, but thinks that large constituencies would combat that. I tend to think that large constituencies are less of a safeguard than short terms and repeated elections, but that's a quibble.

  4. I get the feeling I'm not going to convince anyone...not sure if it's that I'm wrong, or that I'm making the argument poorly! I'll take a couple shots at responding...

    ASP: "are we to believe that some reps implicitly "contract" to vote their consciences, and others their voters' preferences, and that one approach is not superior to another?"

    Me: Yes. Exactly. That's my position.

    ASP also asks whether, by my standards, it would be impossible to call someone a bad representative if she chooses a bad policy that is in accord to the promises she's made to constituents (I hope that's a fair summary). Good question. I guess my first instinct would be to weasel around it...there's always, presumably, an unspoken promise not to start a war on false premises, or to butcher the execution of a war, and perhaps that overrides the more explicit pledges to invade Iraq. But my less weaselly position is, I do think that one can be a good representative while also doing evil things. It may be unethical -- it was unethical -- to be a pro-segregation politician. But while it was unethical to do it in the first place, they might still have been "good" representatives, in the sense that they built & maintained strong rep. relationships with their constituents.

    At the extremes, I'm probably OK with a "vote your conscience" out. If a rep. is elected by promising to do exactly what his constituents want on every issue, and his constituents suddenly decide to board the Liz Cheney express...well, he then has to make a choice between doing something evil and being a good representative, and I suppose I'd want him to choose against evil. But I guess my point is that it's an easy call for me to make, because, well, I think that torture is evil. I mean, there are people who think that the income tax is evil. If my rep. gets caught in an elevator with Alan Keyes for two hours, and gets sincerely convinced by him, and then votes to eliminate the income tax because it's evil -- well, I'd say he's wrong about the "evil" part, but if my position is that pols should vote their conscience, then I have to applaud him for doing so (although I do recognize that those with that position would still be able to vote the jerk out next time around). At any rate, if she's my rep., I want her to keep her revelation to herself, and keep her promises about how she'll behave in office.


    I'm not sure what your disagreement is...I don't think very many pols in real life are either pure Burkeans or pure mandatists (word?). If you read deeply into Fenno, you get a wonderful variety of types of representation. I mean, as voters we're free to shop for a Burkean pol, but as Pitkin (IIRC) says, outside of the extremes it really comes down to taste. I hope I'm remembering that is not easily available right now. My tastes run the other way -- I trust them to try to keep their promises, but not to think for themselves.

  5. You are right and I often argue the same. On the other hand the whole point of representative democracy rather than pure democracy is that popular opinion can frequently get it very badly wrong and representatives sometimes need to buck up and vote for something unpopular. How to distinguish which is which is the hard part.

    It looks like it is more difficult for them now to do the necessary but unpopular thing than it used to be. This is something that I think is an unfortunate side effect of the weakening of parties to be more directly democratic.

  6. Jonathan, re the quote marks around 'good' in your response below:

    It may be unethical -- it was unethical -- to be a pro-segregation politician. But while it was unethical to do it in the first place, they might still have been "good" representatives, in the sense that they built & maintained strong rep. relationships with their constituents.

    Isn't this an admission that your definition of a "good" rep is inadequate? No one is denying that such a rep may do a "good" job getting reelected and executing the will of his/her constituency. One can argue, too, that reps in the aggregate cannot be better than their constituents. But is that not also a complex chicken-egg conundrum? I think of Frederick Douglass' tribute to Lincoln:

    Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

    Lincoln's mingling and sequencing of principle and pragmatism was complex. But he did not merely fulfill an implicit contract with his constituents - unless that contract was to induce them by degrees to follow the better angels of their nature. And if that was *his* contract, sure it was better in kind than the contract of one who slavishly follows constituents' will.

  7. I pretty much agree with Mr. Bernstein here. In a practical sense, a politician is doing what got them elected when they act the way they said they'd act if elected; as a result, they are pleasing their constituents (presumably), and when it comes down to it, it is the constituents who determine a pols "goodness" or "badness"(politically, at least).

    I do think, however, that there is more decision making involved on the part of representatives when choosing how to represent than just how to run, and whether to act as he said he would. To begin with, a pol must often choose between interest groups who both supporter her, but who back competing policies. In such cases, campaign promises are of little help. Secondly, politicians make plenty of decisions that have little or no effect, directly, on their district. For instance, a pol from Vermont would have little practical investment in abortion or military budgets/weapons deals/weapons subsidies as district issues. In such circumstances, unless they chose to take a stance during the campaign, most pols can vote as they see fit, though they'll often be judged for it later. So I suppose I should say that I agree with Mr. Bernstein that pols should behave as they promise to behave, with the additional comment that all pols will face opportunities to express their "wisdom" on issues not covered by official statements and that, in those instances, I prefer pols who actually think about the issue(or try to barter on it) instead of voting the party line.

    The only quibble I can say I have with Mr. Bernstein's analysis is that I think it 1) downplays the influence that national parties and their propaganda arms have over politicians these days, and 2) downplays the influence these actors have directly on constituents and how they perceive their interests, even at the state level. What, for instance, does a man like Speaker Craddick in Texas gain from parroting Republican National party talking points? That has little to do with his constituents and much to do with funding and Fox News. Ancillary to this is the question of how, in the age of targeted issue-spam and mass mailings, can a politician really know where his constituents stand on an issue? One need only look at the expansion of FCC censorship to see how capable interests groups have become at gaming government officials with phone harassment and mass-mailings. So a good politician, to me at least, would not only be one who keeps his promises to the district, whatever they may be, but also one who is capable of wading through all the noise to see what is in the interests of her district, capable of explaining and defending it clearly to her voters, and one able, on issues of district interests, of standing up to the national parties and their calumny-machines when the situation is important enough to call for it. I guess nothing, even politicians, fits tidily into any theoretical framework.

  8. As a New Yorker, I'm not sure what promises David Paterson made, if any. But if he DID make any, I am certain they have been broken!!

  9. I agree. And in spite of your "weasely" instincts, you found exactly the right answer in your last comment. A person - a human - is expected (in extreme cases) to choose avoiding evil over good representation just as they are expected to choose avoiding evil over performance of duties as a citizen or soldier. The nature of good representation - which is as you have described it - remains unchanged by the higher duties of humanity.

  10. I haven't read all of the arguments, but yes, I agree, the best representation is that representation which mirrors the platform upon which the representative was elected. Perhaps what people are missing here is the balancing forces in the constitution that go between getting mob rule and the "long view" just right. I think a Congressperson is elected every two years in order to represent the "mob" most closely, then Senators, then the appointed judicial system, and somewhere in there, the President. So, yes, I would say, if a Congressperson is elected on a platform of what one side calls traditional values and the other calls bigotry, then so be it. The right balance of representative government versus some sort of sanity, comes in when the Supreme Court weights in, or a Senator who represents the whole state, not the Congressperson who can just be booted out in two years if they don't do what they said they'd do.


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