Representation is easy: Just do it my way (and ignore those other people)
Author: Hal Bidlack - September 13, 2017 - Updated: September 19, 2017
I can only think of one candidate for the U.S. Congress I ever agreed with on nearly every issue. And it was me, during my own run for the House in 2008, here in Colorado District 5. And even then, I’d have second thoughts as I got new information. I’d re-evaluate what I thought was best for the people of CD-5 and Colorado. I committed to, if elected, working very hard to represent my constituents properly.
Of course, therein lies the rub – what does it mean to properly represent the people? Some people will say that true representation is when you do what the people want you to do. Others disagree, and assert that you should do what you think is in the best interest of the people, even if that leads to a decision that is politically unpopular at the moment. Which is correct?
When I taught political science at the Air Force Academy, I would talk to the cadets about the “delegate vs. steward” models of representation. The delegate model says that the elected official is to be just that – a delegate who simply votes in the way the people who elected him or her want. Government by popular opinion. Makes sense, right? Simple!
But the steward model says that, once elected, you are exposed to more and better information about the details of the issues. Therefore, you should vote in the peoples’ best interest, even if that is a momentarily unpopular position. The argument goes like this – you follow your doctor’s guidance when you are sick because you assume that your doctor has more information than you do about your illness, and that he or she is better positioned to tell you what to do, even if the medicine tastes bad. So, if you elected your senator or member of Congress, you presumably sent that person to D.C. to do a deep-dive into the issues so that they can make an informed decision – one that you presumably would have made, had you the time and information available to you. So, act as a steward of the public trust. Makes sense, right? Simple!
So which is correct? I used to tell my students that if they were ever stuck for an answer to a question from me in class, the odds were pretty good that if they said “Sir, that depends” they’d have a better than average chance of being correct. Because in politics, lots of things depend. We like the delegate model when we know exactly what we want our elected representative to do. Heck, we pay their salaries! So vote like I want you to vote! It’s so simple!
Unless, of course, it depends. Because some issues (cough… health care…cough) are famously complicated and a too-simplistic evaluation can lead to a bad decision and bad policy. Just as you want your doctor to have extensive knowledge of obscure health challenges, we want our representatives to also have extensive knowledge of policy issues. What should be our policy toward Saudi Arabia? Toward Israel? On climate change? Heck, on which bridges to fix first? How about nukes? Do you want to deploy nuclear weapons on the basis of deep and insightful thought by, say, 30-year defense expert Sen. John McCain, or should we use your gut feeling? I say we need experts to do deep-dives into the subject and come back with a vote that is in our best interest. We need a steward. Mostly. Usually. Except when we don’t.
During both my own run for Congress, and the four years I spent as a Senate staffer, working on thousands of military and veteran cases I often saw the challenge of delegate vs. steward representation. I took calls from hundreds of Coloradans demanding that my boss vote a particular way on a particular issue because the correct course of action was “obvious.” Of course, about half the callers disagreed with the other half on what was the obvious solution.
In class, the “delegate vs steward model” was a useful tool to help teach the concept of representation. In the real world, every elected official bumps up against the implications of the model every day. So which is correct? As I said, both and neither. There are issues wherein the representative will usually vote in line with the perceived will of the people back home. These tend to be the “simpler” things, such as the bills now racing through Congress for hurricane relief. But the more complex issues will nearly always lead to a difficult decision for the representative. Do you vote the way the people want you to today, or do you vote in what you believe is their long-term best interests, even if it ticks off folks back home at the moment?
I believe, based on my own personal experience, that most elected representatives are good and honorable people, at all levels of government, doing the very best job they can do. There are exceptions, but most are good folks. And I particularly admire those who take the unpopular stand because they feel it is the right thing to do in the long run, even when there might be more immediate electoral consequences. In my old Senate boss’s first campaign, he was asked about a vote he might be asked to take, and would he still favor the bill if he knew it would cost him the election. He said yes, and he meant it. I think we need more of that courage. We need more stewards when being a delegate would be easier. And we need more voters who take the time to become better informed on the issues, and who therefore understand how rarely issues are just black or white, especially in the long term. Because that’s where, to borrow a phrase from a terrible old movie, we will spend our lives – in the future.
So, after 1,021 words, I argue for our elected representatives to vote more often with their minds than on their poll numbers. But, remember that I lost my election, to a gentleman who seems far more tilted toward the delegate model. Perhaps that’s the lesson? I rather hope not.