On What Should Politicians Base Their Decisions?

August 24, 2010

Whom should lawmakers follow when making decisions? This question comes up in nearly every political debate, and cuts to the very root of an elected official's responsibilities in a constitutional democracy. The two most common answers pit the public’s opinions against a lawmaker’s conscience. For instance, in recent arguments over health care , same-sex marriage , and the proposed Ground Zero Islamic cultural center , many posited that lawmakers ought to listen to the American people, especially those responsible for placing them in office. Others responded that public opinion is not everything, and that a lawmaker must employ his or her own capacity to reason about what is right and wrong. Yet the resulting question – should lawmakers make decisions based on what the public thinks is right, or what they think is right? – results in a false dichotomy. As it often turns out, the answer is more complex than it might at first appear.

Considering its newsworthiness, the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan works well as an example. Most everyone believes the group responsible for the construction of the center has the legal right to have their own place of worship (to be sure, it is a cultural center). But many believe the government ought to step in and divert the building’s location elsewhere because of concerns for public feelings toward Islam. What is a lawmaker to do?

There is a strong case for politicians listening to the public. Of course, politicians have their own interest in listening, for they could be quickly voted out if the public perceives that they are not listening to, or even worse, going against their wishes. Moreover, the public elects representatives, and therefore ought to have some say in governmental affairs as they progress. The public might have an argument based on its living in a specific locale. People might know something the lawmaker is not aware of. In the case of the cultural center, some of those affected by the Sept. 11 attacks are letting the government know they do not want an Islamic building so close to the site of the terror attack.

Then again, the public cannot be followed all of the time. That would lead to terribly wrong and unconstitutional legislation. For example, if it were up to the public, gays would not have equal marriage rights, or for that matter, creationism or intelligent design would be taught alongside evolution – or exclusively – in public science classrooms. The issue gets less clear cut when it is not one of constitutionality. If it were up to the public, perhaps the health insurance reform package would not have gone through as written – but whether that is right or wrong is not a matter of what the Constitution says. For our purposes here, dependence on public opinion would surely put plans for the cultural center on ice. Or would they? Even public opinion is murky water, because “the public" is often more divided than we think. For example, most Manhattan residents are just fine with the Islamic cultural center. Compare that with polling data that suggests most Americans more broadly are against the idea. To which portion of the public should a lawmaker listen? Americans at large or the local residents who are actually affected more directly?

Here, we face a third and necessary consideration: the law. Indeed, in the case of the Islamic cultural center, if politicians listened to the broader public, they would be violating the Constitution.

There are two important points, then. One is making the distinction between listening and following. A lawmaker ought to listen to the public and to the law when making choices, but he or she need not follow either dogmatically. People have the right to lobby their lawmakers for the change they want. Lawmakers, however, have the right to go against the public’s wishes, though they should be doing so while being aware of the public’s views and the reasons for such views.

The second is that the lawmakers’ conscience and reasoning is not separate from public opinion and law, but rather, is informed by them and is the final line in the deciding process. A lawmaker does not exclusively choose public opinion or law. Rather, the lawmaker should consult the views of his or her constituents and the laws already on the books, and weigh them both against the lawmaker’s beliefs, as well as what sort of changes he or she thinks might foster a more just society. Essentially, the issue is not whom a lawmaker should follow, but to whom he or she should listen before making a decision – a determination that will ultimately be reached by way of the lawmaker's own conscience.

This level of deliberation should not bother citizens in this country. After all, we all admit that the people cannot be involved in every decision. Our system of governance, a representative democracy, is constructed to deal with this fact. We support and vote for lawmakers based on our shared ideas about governance, broadly speaking. We task them with having knowledge about politics and the issues, and trust their judgment to implement our shared ideas and make a better world – to represent our best interests and uphold the Constitution. We don’t expect them to follow us blindly.

President Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that he is “answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience.” That is, at the end of the day, he cannot merely follow the public’s desires. He must feel at ease with his own contemplation of what is right. This includes considerations such as public opinion and law, but it means not all his decisions will follow popular opinion. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many politicians have a tendency to pay obsessive attention to public opinion merely as an expedient way to stay in office, while others follow their consciences despite reasonable public opinion or the law. In a better world, neither of these extremes would be the appropriate conduct of a politician. Instead, elected representatives would listen to public opinion, law, and their consciences, and follow the resulting reasoning wherever it led.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking