View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Representative government

A brief exchange in response to yesterday’s post got me thinking.

What is the proper role for an elected representative in a representative government?

There are generally two positions.

The first position holds that the representative should present the opinions of the people who elected him/her. In this sense, representative government is essentially just an outgrowth of the old town meeting where each man could vote. Because of the size of the county, the state, the nation, that one man can’t vote individually, so he picks someone to accurately present his views.

The second view holds that government has grown large and complex, and so we elect an “expert’ who has the time, skills and knowledge to study the issues and decisions carefully, and to vote based on his or her best judgment.

Both positions have their adherents.

I like the simplicity of the first position, but I think it is flawed. What if the voters have, because of prejudice or misinformation, what we consider a “wrong” view on an issue?

The easiest example is the situation that existed in the Southern United States for many years. The majority of people in the South believed in segregation. But segregation was morally wrong – a judgment most people would agree with now. Should an elected official uphold something he or she believed to be morally wrong? Some people would argue yes, if that’s what the people who elected him or her want. Indeed, some Southern politicians argued this. Ultimately, it took the federal government to step in – which resulted in violence and bitterness. What if the Southerners themselves had taken the initiative?

There have been similar examples around the world – Blacks in South Africa during the days of apartheid. Women in many nations of the word. Jews in Nazi Germany. Catholics in Northern Ireland. Ethnic minorities in nations like Serbia, Rwanda, India, etc. Should elected officials in those places just do what their voters want, even if they know what the voters want is wrong?

Morally, I have a problem with this position. How can you justify supporting something you find morally wrong – in some cases, seriously wrong? That doesn’t change the situation, and I wonder what it does to the elected official’s soul.

Such is the case with an issue like abortion, where we’ve heard people argue that they are personally opposed to abortion, but they are representing the views of their constituents. A perfect example of this line of argument was offered by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. His argument would have had more credibility if he hadn’t also consistently vetoed death penalty legislation even though the majority of voters wanted it approved. The word I have for that is hypocrisy.

All too often I have found that politicians who use this shield are more interested in reelection or getting elected to higher office than in presenting the views of their constituents.

Did I mention the word hypocrisy?

Still, there are some people who legitimately hold this position. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt unless they show signs of inconsistency (ala Cuomo) or of changing their positions to suit the political winds (such as Al Gore did when he shifted his position from pro-life to pro-choice when he sought higher office).

I am inclined toward the second view of the role of an elected official.

The world and government have gotten so large and complex we need people who are able study all aspects of an issue or a decision in ways that the average person can’t. When we elect someone, we elect that person based on personality, knowledge, abilities, and beliefs, and trust him/her to make use of all of these attributes in making decisions.

Faith and morality are important components of this. I want someone with a clear moral/ethical vision that will guide him/her while making decisions. I may not be of the same faith, but at least I want to know where he or she stands as I cast my vote.

The danger with this position, of course, is that the voters sometimes relinquish their responsibility to study the issues themselves.

I may not be able to study the issues to the depth a full-time official might, but I have a responsibility to be familiar enough with the issues so that I can decide whether what the elected official says or does is right.

So I want to hear an elected official say that his/her decision is based on his/her best judgment. I may disagree with the particular position, but I will at least respect the person. And at least I know something is important to him or her beyond just political gain.

We need only look at the respect given to our late pope. People disagreed with his positions on a number of issues, but he earned their respect because he had a vision and consistently maintained it.


Anonymous Connie said...

" When we elect someone, we elect that person based on personality, knowledge, abilities, and beliefs, and trust him/her to make use of all of these attributes in making decisions."

I would add:

"We trust them to work in the best interest of the people and not the best interest of their Church."

Just as the election of JFK rained questions about the potential role of the Vatican in the US government, knowing that the Church can or will try to control Cathloic politicians by 'sacramental blackmail' (if you will) will ony lower their electability.

People of good conscience can have very disparate and valid views, Lee.

10:09 AM  

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