There is something to be said for engaging a problem in the terms understood by those who must confront it in a practical sense, meaning actual, real world elected public officials. Almost all of them have a sense of the competing and sometimes antagonistic considerations of personal interest, public duty, public opinion, the views of their supporters, and a sense of what is right and best.
Once you have over about 25,000 constituents, someone is always ready and aching to give you a piece of their mind. Contrary to your elegant metaphor, public opinion is not a delicate creature dancing in the breeze but is a robust and often brute and snarling beast. Or, as Mencken put it, democracy is a form of government based on the principle that the people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard.
For elected officials like the state and federal legislators I am familiar with, the public and public opinion are not abstractions but an insistent torrent of telephone calls, letters, editorials, direct comments, polls, focus groups, and lobbying. What the public thinks is ever an influence, real or potential, on elected officials, even if what best serves the public is not always their guide star. More than once I have seen instances in which a single well-put comment from the public at the right moment tilted the balance and decided an issue.
Apart from the corrupt and stupid and instances of personal dereliction or when public opinion or lobbying pressures must be accommodated, most public officials are remarkably consistent in their views and actions. The jobbery and manipulations of lame duck sessions are but a small part of the process. In some states, like Florida, there are no lame duck sessions because legislators begin their term immediately upon election.
As you point out, the American political process has numerous remedies and safeguards against bad laws and policies. Not the least of them is the sense by public officials that they are indeed stewards of the public interest. We ought not to diminish that benign influence by fostering a sense of political realism so corrosive and crude that it deceives us and subverts our institutions.
My first sense is to bow before a magnificent post. Very well put, and a truly excellent summary of what is self-government.
The next impulse is to think of my lobbyist friend who would stand before the House door, awaiting this or that congressman hustling in to make a vote, and offering the harried representative, "Are you with us, Mr. Congressman, or should I put you down for 35,000 letters?"
I didn't mean to portray the public will as something delicate or beautiful; rather, I meant to describe it as impossible to capture in flight. It is, as you say, brutal and robust, but it is also ephemeral. Whatever that moment that a representative gives to the pressure is that very same moment he decides what the next election will mean. That's a matter of choice, and cannot be an accurate perception of the public will except as the next election affirms or denies it.
Nevertheless, as they say, the crying mouth gets the worm. That is, I think we agree on this point.
There is so much in your post to ponder, so I will beg off for the night to think it over. I'm not convinced that there is any overarching mission that our representatives ought or do strive to meet other than that given them by the voters and by fundamental law.
Thanks, and please elaborate where you see fit.
posted on 12/08/2004 9:53:34 PM PST
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