It is ambition rather than ability or character that is often rewarded.
It seems there is a certain grade-school aura about our political life.
In the past, the presidency was a capstone of one’s career. People did not offer themselves for the highest office in the land after only a year of two in public office, with few achievements to speak of and little understanding of the larger world. We seem to have abandoned any search for excellence and accomplishment in those who seek our highest office. Raw ambition, it seems, will suffice.
We have also, it appears, abandoned any notion of leadership. We seek men and women who will simply tell us what we want to hear rather, perhaps, than what we need to hear. Commenting on the view that a representative’s opinion should always be consistent with views held by 51 per cent of those registered and voting in his or her district, William F. Buckley Jr. said,
“If the latter were truly desirable, we could have running democracy without any difficulty at all by simply plugging in Dr. Gallup to a big IBM machine and turning the dial…Why have any elected officials at all. Why not just constantly submit questions about everything to the voters, and let them decide directly?”
This, of course, is the age-old question faced by political representatives. Is their function to represent the transitory opinions of their constituents or their interests as determined by the best judgment of the men and women chosen to assume a position of leadership?
In his speech to the electors at Bristol in 1774, Edmund Burke declared, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
In that same speech, Burke addressed the larger question of a public interest to which all in government should be committed: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes or local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.”
In the 1830s, a citizen of Massachusetts suggested to John Quincy Adams that his job as congressman was to register exactly their views on public matters. The ex-president replied that for such a job clerks were available, and that his idea of representative government was that the man sent to Washington was to represent not the momentary views of his constituents but was to exercise the judgment in which such constituents had shown confidence by electing him. If the constituents disagreed, he argued, they could turn him out of office at the next election.
And what of the broader view of representation? Is a representative merely the spokesman for those registered and above the minimum age in his district, or is he representative of a broader constituency?
In his important book, “Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton discussed what he called “the democracy of the dead.” He wrote:
“If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history…Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.
Americans have traditionally believed in the kind of representative government in which representatives were statesmen and not mere reflectors of the popular will of the moment. In making important decisions, from such a perspective, we must take into consideration not only the views of the current majority or the most vocal minority, but the views of all those who have come before and all those who are yet to come.
To do otherwise would be to enshrine neither democracy nor freedom., but the rule of the mob and the passions of the moment.
Given our red-state and blue-state division, the tendency of the party out of power to want the party in power to make a mess of things, so that it can be replaced, is exaggerated. Sadly, we seem no longer to seek leadership, but men and women who are so devoid of personal judgment and opinions of their own that merely expressing what we tell them to express seems no hardship.
This trend has been growing in recent years.
In the 1960s, Gerald Ford was asked to complete in as few words as possible a sentence that began,
“The mission of the minority party is…,” his reply was the following: “The mission of the minority party is to become the majority.” The question of whether a political party should stand for something more than victory is rarely considered. Disraeli lamented in the England of the 19th century that the Conservative Party had abandoned any semblance of principle. In “Coningsby,” he gives counsel to search for something more meaningful: “…hold yourself aloof from political parties which from the necessity of things have ceased to have distinctive principles, and are therefore only factions…”
There was a time in American society when its best men offered themselves for leadership: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison; the list is a long one. Looking at those who are self-selecting themselves for the 2016 presidential contest, the picture appears far different.
Our political life is filled with men and women who can echo the words of James Russell Lowell’s poem: “Ez to princerples, I glory/ In hevin’ nothin’ o’ the sort/ I ain’t a Whig, I ain’t a Tory/ I’m jest a canderdate in short.”
Blaming the candidates for their shortcomings, however, misses the larger point. Democracy is indeed working, for this is the kind of government we have chosen. To get better candidates we may need a better electorate. There are no easy answers about how to achieve that goal.