On the will of the people

I remember when the “will of the people” was 51 votes in the Senate. Now, of course, it’s 41 votes in the Senate. But vote counting is quite possibly the least problematic issue associated with the notion of political representatives conveying the “will of the people”.

It goes without saying that representatives from both parties commonly represent the will of their corporate sponsors – those who can pay for their re-election campaigns – far more often than the will of the people, who themselves will vote largely based on name recognition and the vibes they get from those well-financed re-election campaigns. But this issue is also secondary.

The primary issue is that the “will of the people” is a myth. A joke about Jewish people (and sometimes Unitarians, or Democrats, or whoever) is that when any two of them are present there are at least three opinions. That’s the joke. The reality is that “will” is an individual asset, not a group one. Even so, theoretically, one could construct some estimation of a collective representation of “will” using some sort of averaging system. But in practice such a construct would never work. Just like the light you see from the stars, by the time it gets here, it no longer tells you what the will of the people is now. Opinions are ephemeral critters. Even if an individual’s opinion survives for a decade on average, with a population of less than 4000 people, an opinion will change every day and skew that average. With a population of 40,000, this happens several times a day – so that by the time you compute the “average”, it has changed significantly.

All of this before considering the role of persuasion in the political process, or that of any of its synonyms – leadership if you like it, propaganda if you don’t. All of this before considering the role of individual psychology – of the tendency for the same programs to be popular with republicans and unpopular with democrats when republicans advance them, and popular with democrats and unpopular with republicans when republicans advance them. Despite our certainty that it “isn’t me” who is subject to this tribal psychology (justified in some cases, you find somewhat less of this among those who study public policy very closely – yet it still exists even among that set: consider that individual insurance “mandates” were once championed by Congressional Republicans and resisted by Congressional Democrats), such psychology is strongly reflected in the composite “will of the people”.

But let’s go back to persuasion for a moment, and the notion of leadership. Because all of this was sparked by this little story of a man who found himself in a plight that our political system, premised as it is on incorrect notions of how representative government should work, created: He had to compromise – in the starkest terms – his own principles in order to get re-elected. Or, in friendlier terms, he had to do so in order to represent “the will of the people”. And, as with most politicians, he did it rather than let someone else have the job – someone who would wind up doing a lot of the same thing. The story. In the process, not only did he represent the will of the people, but he mis-represented himself and more importantly, played a role in bolstering the narrative (“anti-gay” is the same as “pro-family values”) that helps to persuade people to be anti-gay.

I am presenting this story in a way that highlights the dysfunctionality of the system that purports to represent the “will of the people”, and which consequently casts Ashburn in a less unfavorable light – depicting him as painted into a corner… elected to office to represent the people in matters unrelated to “family values”… and forced to betray himself in order to accommodate the “will of the people” on that issue. In fact, I see him in an unambiguously negative light. For one, he was arrested for DUI – something which earns him heaps of opprobrium all on its own. For another – he went much further than any argument from principle on grounds of “representing his constituents” could support – styling himself as “family values” while promoting anti-gay positions, and going so far as to marry (and divorce) presumably without disclosing his sexual orientation to his wife (this itself an unfortunate trend among homosexuals closeted because of social or religious pressure – a trend that is often devastating to families).

But the fact remains – a prinicipled gay person who identifies with, and believes he or she can most responsibly represent on all issues but one – the “will” of a body politic that is rabidly anti-gay – faces a real dilemma of principle. This is an institutionalized sort of dilemma that extends far beyond the politics of sexual identity. It can happen to any otherwise principled politician who supports the majority, but not all, of the positions of his or her constituency.

What should such a person do? Campaign openly on their own positions and principles and let the chips fall where they may, even if it means losing to a challenger who actually represents the populace less well, or less effectively? Hide their own positions – or even identity – and try to estimate and represent the people even in ways their own conscience cannot abide?

There isn’t a good answer. And that’s because the notion of a politician as representative of the will of the people is a flawed one, and needs to be re-thought.

At the same time, the role of politicians as “leaders” – or as “propagandizers” or “demagogues” needs some scrutiny. Should it be the role of a politician to lead? To persuade his or her constituents of the righteousness of a cause, and to work toward making reality of their own visions? And, if so, how does one allow for this without opening the door to demagoguery?

I don’t have the answers. But in times of political turmoil (as they say on the TeeVee), hyper-partisanship, and after decades of poor governance and promises of more of the same after every election in the foreseeable future, these are the issues more people should try to spend some time on.

2 comments to On the will of the people

  • And I wind up always feeling horrible for people like Roy Ashburn. I cannot imagine how awful it must be to live the kind of life he lives. To stand up at a podium and rant against the evils of homosexuality while being a homosexual. That is weird to me. Kinda like Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart. I just have a hard time figuring out how they did what they did. I just can’t wrap my head around that kind of disconnect.

  • Yeah… well… these guys throw the human condition into bold relief. I feel sorry for them, too.

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