Placing Constituent Wants ahead of Principle--Virtue or Vice?

Author:Becker, Rick
Position:Reflections
 
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The debate over the relative merits of a true (direct) democracy and a representative democracy (republic) has been around since before our country's founding. We talk about America as being a "democracy," when in tact it is not. The notion that America is a democracy and that elected officials should at all times heed the voters' wishes has become pervasive. Nevertheless, as a newly elected legislator in 2012, I thought it incongruous that I was elected to do the best job possible but also relegated to being merely a poll taker rather than a deliberative statesman. Over time, my observations led me to realize that legislators have different understandings of their legislative roles. Furthermore, something as seemingly innocuous as their perception of their roles results in a dramatic schism in voting behavior among elected officials. The question at hand: Should elected officials vote according to what they believe is best (presumably what they portrayed to voters prior to their election), or should they repress personal beliefs in deference to the perceived wishes of their constituents?

Political scientists assign terms to the roles that elected officials assume when considering how to vote. In the role of delegate, elected officials believe they ought to act as the voice of those who are not present. Delegates vote according to the wishes of their constituents and do not otherwise exhibit autonomy. In the role of trustee, elected officials believe they ought to "do the right thing," even if that means going against the short-term interests of their constituents, who rely on them for their competence and judgment.

For centuries, elected officials have struggled with these roles. In a speech supporting the role of trustee, Edmund Burke said in 1774, "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." He further said, "Government and Legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination; and, what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide" (1999, 11).

Elected officials acting in the different capacities behave and legislate in dramatically different fashions. My assessment of the practical nature of the two roles, based on my legislative experience, is shown in figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1, "Legislating as a Trustee," is simple. When...

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