Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where's Captain Kirk?

Seth Masket gives me a great opportunity to both plug a recent column he wrote with Steve Greene on the electoral effects of the health care bill, and to talk about one of my favorite topics, representation.  Seth calculates that voting for the ACA seems to be costing Democratic Members of the House about three points in the polls, and speculates:
[S]hould we be thinking of these representatives as heroes?  After all, they cast a vote based on what they believed was right even though they knew it might cost them their jobs.  Isn't that something we should celebrate?  Are they like Jeannette Rankin, who refused to vote for American engagement in either WWI or WWII, and subsequently shattered her political career?  Or Gov. Ralph Carr, who gave up his future in Colorado's Republican Party by opposing the internment of Japanese Americans?  Or Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, whose vote in support of Bill Clinton's first budget ended her political career?

Jonathan Bernstein has written extensively on this subject, arguing that politicians should worry more about being good representatives than doing "what's right."  And we should be particularly wary of politicians who are trying to do "what's right," if for no other reason than the definition of "right" is rather vague.  This also goes to the more complicated question of whom exactly representatives are supposed to be representing.  Every person in their district?  Every voter?  The people who elected them?  Their party?
That's right -- I think that pols should try to be good representatives.  That doesn't necessarily mean, however, simply polling the district and doing whatever the pollster says.  Theorists of representation say that we should think of it as a relationship, in which politicians make "promises" to their constituents -- not just promises of how they'll vote on specific issues of public policy, but promises about who they will represent, how they will represent those people, how they will act.  One might even say, who they will be.  So to Seth, I would say that there's no "supposed to be" in the equation, no "should" about how that relationship should be structured.

So a pol who runs for office saying that she's going to be the candidate of the Republicans, or the Tea Partiers, or the Polish-Americans, should be exactly that in office.  A pol who says she's going to represent the entire district, well, that's a different candidate, a different representation relationship, and a different elected official with different obligations if she wins.  None of those are inherently "better" or "correct" representation -- what counts for good representation isn't which promises you make, but whether you carry them out once in office.  That you explain what you're doing to your constituents in terms of those promises, implicit and explicit.

The same thing is true about the question of whether elected officials should "do what the people want" or "do what's right" (which, as Seth mentions, really means doing what the politician thinks is right, which may not be the same thing).  Some pols run for office as servants of the people, who will do whatever the people tell them to do.  Others run by promising to possess specific skills, traits, or qualities that they will use in office.  They say, in effect, "Vote for me because I know what's best" (of course, not in those words). Neither of these promises is better or worse; neither promises more or less representation.  They are, just, different.  Someone in the first group should do exactly what the people want because that's what he said he would do.  Someone in the second group, however, would be a poor representative if, after promising that he would bring special expertise or judgment to his job, then abandon that for the wisdom of the crowd.

And then it does get more complex, again not in terms of what's right or wrong, but in the ways that all real-world relationships get complex.  I won't quote the whole thing, but Richard Fenno has a wonderful piece on the way Senator Claiborne Pell's representative relationship evolved in Rhode Island.  Eventually, Pell saw himself as promising loyalty to the interests of his state on economic issues, but independence beyond that: "On broad issues of war and peace, abortion, prayer in the schools, I vote my conscience...even if it's contrary to my constituents."  And, Fenno says, Pell believed that his constituents supported that division, which Pell himself emphasized in his stump speeches.  Of course, that doesn't mean Pell was doing the "right" thing on abortion, or not doing the right thing on the economy; in my view, at least, that sort of characterization just isn't very useful.

So, the title of this post notwithstanding, I think we're better off not thinking about courage and heroism (although, in the broader sense, I consider most of those who run for office at any level to be great patriots).  We're better off thinking about good and bad representation, but keeping in mind just how complicated representational relationships can be.

(The Pell quote is from Fenno, Senators on the Campaign Trail, 250-251.  See also Hanna Pitkin, The Concept of Representation, and if you're really interested, my posts here and here, plus the one Seth linked to above.  Also, if you don't know the title reference, you need to get yourself educated, and I'll highly recommend Urgh! A Music War.  I thought about using Nena, but I don't speak any German at all.  Unlike Hillary Flammond, who knows a little German...).


  1. Ah, but I come back to Dahl, whose ultimate justification for majority rule is most likely to produce policies that are in the public's interest.
    As an unashamed Burkean elitist, I find no problem in taking issue with Dahl, nor with you on this. Your argument that politicians get elected based on how they promise to represent people is contradictory to what I know you believe about mandates. We all know that the economy, and their appearance, and their party, and their spending, and the gaffe their opponent made, etc are mostly the reasons they got elected. I have less of a problem with a rep who thinks their job is to be a delegate rather than a trustee. However, I don't think that being a trustee when you ran as a delegate is any great sin; you made a "promise" in the context of attempting to convince people on the margins to vote for you. I don't think that many people will have truly factored in such a promise into their voting calculations, certainly not enough to affect the outcome 99 times out of 100, so if my election had more to do with dumb luck and campaign skills than with what I promised, then why should my promises be held against me?

  2. Ah, no -- I did not say that pols get elected because of their promises. That's a different claim, and one that I agree is not supported by the evidence.

    No, what I'm saying is just that...(1) they *do* make (various types of) promises when they run; (2) empirically, we find that they do try to keep them; (3) and that they are aware of their promises and act as if they had a "real" relationship with their constituents; (4) and that *that* is what representation is.

    All that I think is not much more than extrapolation from Fenno's empirical findings. What's trickier is how to account for the obvious fact that despite the illusions of the pol, most actual constituents are unaware of it. I strongly believe that those things can be reconciled, but you'll have to read my paper on it for how.

  3. So, to paraphrase #4:
    representation is elected officials doing something they don't have to do to please people who aren't aware that the action should be pleasing?

    Yes, I'm trying to be a smart ass, but I'm also interested in trying to figure out what representation really means/requires/entails, and I've never been satisfied by either Arendt or Dahl on the subject.

  4. Matt,

    No, I don't think you're being a smartass, and I do think it's awful tricky. When I was working on this stuff, I was tempted to say that representation is all in the pol's head, and leave it at that, but I wound up getting beyond that, in my view successfully. I don't really think Dahl helps, at least not for me (and FWIW remember, representation doesn't have to be democratic). In my view, Pitkin and Fenno get you about 75% of the way there, and then I use Shakespeare and party theory (and a little Arendt, maybe some other stuff but I'd have to go back and look) to get the rest of the way. I *don't* think it's all in the pol's head, but yeah, it's a damn tricky concept to get a handle on.

  5. Fenno and Rep. Jack Flynt will go a long way and helped me to draw my own conclusions. Read Pitkin then “Congress at the Grassroots...” If you want more than 75%, read Pitkin again and more Fenno – maybe "Home Style."

  6. I like Fenno, and he surely helps me to understand what happens and why it happens. Heck, he's my bible on that, and my first computer in grad school was nicknamed Fenno.

    Where Fenno leaves me, though, is at the normative question. Since I've been arguing with Buchler along these lines (and others, of course) for a bit now, I've gotten to a point where I'm not sure about the normative requirements of/for representation. I'm comfy talking about what representation does look like, but I'm stuck for what it SHOULD look like.

    This isn't a criticism; this is more me thinking while I type as I try to figure out this question for myself.

  7. Matt,

    My position on this is that there's no "should" beyond what pols negotiate with their constituents. And at least to the pols, it feels as if they're doing that.


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