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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Politicians, Statesmen, and Democracy

Before I begin this post, a word to my readers [always assuming that there are any, of course]. Unlike many political bloggers, I shall try to avoid commenting on the latest outrage immediately after it surfaces. I do not think I have any greater wisdom about George Tenet, Virginia Tech, Anna Nicole Smith, or even Iraq and Iran than scores of other bloggers. For breaking news with a leftward tilt, I recommend is a rightwing libertarian site whose politics, given the current state of affairs, are often indistinguishable from those on the left. The most knowledgeable commentator on the Iraq mess is Juan Cole, whose site,, is an invaluable source of information about what is appearing in the Arabic language press. My goal in these posts is to offer reflections at a somewhat deeper level, directly relevant to our immediate situation but informed [or so I hope] by a more systematic theoretical framework of analysis. In short, I am going for sage rather than scold. We shall see.

Which brings me to today's subject: statesmen, politicians, and democracy.

For as long as I can remember, commentators on American politics have distinguished between those public figures who, in their eyes, qualify as Statesmen and those who are dismissed as mere Politicians. J. William Fulbright is a Statesman. Mitt Romney is merely a Politician. And so forth. The mark of the true statesman is thought to be the courage and character to take a principled position and stand by it despite public disapproval as revealed in opinion polls or periodic elections. A politician who changes his or her stand on an issue of public policy in an attempt to curry favor with some segment of the voting population is viewed as, and described as, a panderer, a flipflopper, a craven arriviste with his or her finger to the wind.

By this measure, far and away the most statesman-like public figure of the past generation is George W. Bush, who gives every evidence of being willing to withstand abysmal approval ratings and sharp electoral rebuffs in pursuit of a foreign and military policy that has made him possibly the most widely hated and contemned public figure in the world today.

Inasmuch as this is a thoroughly unacceptable conclusion for any self-respecting progressive to endorse, the Left is left with only two alternatives: Either assert, against all the evidence, that Bush is merely a puppet sitting on Dick Cheney's lap, with neither opinions nor convictions of his own; or else mumble embarrassedly that by a statesman we mean someone who stands by convictions we happen to share.

As is often the case when we find ourselves caught in this sort of conceptual morass, the problem is an unexamined presupposition on which the entire discussion rests. This will take a bit of time to sort out, but the conclusion is simplicity itself: Elected officials should always behave like politicians, never like statesmen.

I am afraid that I must begin with a brief summary of some of the arguments of my little book, In Defense of Anarchism. Those who have read it can skip over this part of the post.

There is a deep contradiction between the authority claimed by the state [virtually every state] and the autonomy of decision and action that reason commands that the individual agent exhibit. Every state claims the right to issue commands, in the form of law, and to use force to ensure that those over whom it claims authority comply with those commands. States do not merely assert the power to compel compliance [as a highwayman might, who says, "your money or your life"]; states claim a moral right to the obedience of their subjects.

But reason dictates that each moral agent make choices based on reasons that the agent judges to be compelling, and the mere fact that the state has issued an order is not such a reason. This is not lawlessness, or amorality. Rather it is autonomy, which literally means self-legislation or giving law to oneself.

On the face of it, there seems to be no way of making the claims of the state compatible with the individual's duty of autonomy. And in such a clash, the claims of autonomy must take precedence for any moral agent. But Democratic Theory asserts that there is in fact one way that state authority can be made compatible with individual autonomy -- namely in the special case in which the individuals whose obedience is commanded are identical with the individuals who issue the commands. For in that case, one obeys only oneself in obeying the law, and is thus free while yet submissive to the authority of the state. In short, the resolution of the conflict between authority and autonomy is self-rule, or democracy. In the words that have come to have iconic status in American life, the resolution demands that government be not merely for the people, but of and by the people. The will given expression in the laws of the state must be the will of the people, who are thus both subjects and legislators, which is to say citizens.

Ideeally, the legislature in a democracy should consist of the entire adult citizenry, for autonomy strictly understood requires that one group of people not make laws for another. That is tyranny. But in a large nation, it is impossible for the entire citizenry to participate in the making of the laws. The necessary compromise is representative government -- the periodic selection, through the electoral process, of representatives who make the laws in the name of those whom they represent.

We may think of our representatives as our agents, to whom, by our votes, we have given, as they say in the law, power of attorney. [Leave to one side the question how we are to understand the relation of a citizen to an elected representative for whom he or she did not in fact vote. See In Defense of Anarchism for an extended discussion of that subject]. When I execute a power of attorney, let us say for a lawyer who will represent me at a real estate deal, I commit myself to abide by the terms of the contract that she negotiates for me. If I ask, after the papers are signed, why I should consider myself bound by a contract I did not myself conclude, the proper and reasonable answer is, "Because your agent, whom you authorized to represent you, concluded the contract in your name with your authority."

Now imagine that your lawyer, armed with your power of attorney, decides that in fact it is not in your best interest to purchase the property you have selected, but that instead the cashier's check you gave to her would be more wisely spent buying a different property, or perhaps some shares of stock. Indeed, suppose she decides that the money really would be better used as a donation to a charity you have never heard of. Clearly you would be outraged. The last thing you would think is that her actions showed her to be a statesman!

The U. S. Senate has a long-standing collegial custom called "pairing." If a senator cannot be present for a vote, he or she will ask a senator on the other side of the question of pair with him or her. The two are then reported as paired, leaving the outcome of the vote unchanged. This custom is observed even in razor-thin votes on crucial issues. Thus it is that when the Senate voted recently, 50 to 48, in favor of setting time limits on our involvement in Iraq, Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat, who is recovering from brain surgery, was paired with a Republican colleague. This made it unnecessary to carry him in on a stretcher so that his vote could be recorded [something that actually happened during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, when Senator Grimes was carried onto the Senate floor on a stretcher to cast the deciding vote against removal of Johnson from the presidency.] If the senator paired with Johnson broke his word and voted against limiting the war, no one would praise him as a statesman.

And yet, when elected representatives vote against the expressed will of their constituents, they are acting like the lawyer who ignores her client's charge, or the senator who breaks faith with a colleague. By voting contrary to the will of their constituents, elected representatives rob them of their role in legislating the laws by which they are, as citizens, bound, and thus destroy whatever legitimacy the state may have.

But, someone might object, suppose that what the representative votes for is actually better than what the constituency favors. Surely, when war and peace, abortion, gay rights, taxes, or the death penalty are at issue, the Republic is better served by thoughtful and courageous public servants who vote what they know to be right and for the general good, rather than by mere recording clerks who transmit unthinkingly the will of a public that may be ill-informed or in the grip of irrational prejudice or jingoist fever!

You may well think so, but let us be clear that if you do, you are simply saying that in some circumstances dictatorship is preferable to democracy. Thus deprived of its legislative will, the citizenry has no more moral or political obligation to obey the laws enacted by its erstwhile representatives than it does to obey the laws handed down by the ruler of some foreign autocracy. It is not the goodness of the laws that lays upon us an obligation to obey them, but the fact that those laws are the expression of our own will, and hence that in obeying them, we are merely obeying ourselves, and thus remain free.

So the next time you reflexively agree with the Washington pundits that representatives who defy constituent pressure are admirable statesmen, while those who change their positions on major issues in response to opinion polls or election results are miserable flip-flopping politicians, take a moment to reflect that you are expressing a preference for benevolent dictatorship.

Let me close with a story. In 1960-61, I was in the last year of a three year Instructorship at Harvard. When Kennedy was elected, a number of young people whom I had come to know were tapped for subordinate positions in the new administration. The next summer, before moving on the the University of Chicago, I decided to see Washington, D. C. for the first time. It was August -- not at all the best time to go to the nation's capitol -- and when I arrived it was boiling hot. I made the rounds of administrative offices, visiting Dick Barnet at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Barbara Bergmann, who was on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Marc Raskin, who sat in the Executive Office Building as Mac Bundy's assistant [I knew Bundy, but after my falling out with him over Cuba, I doubted he would give me the time of day.]

All three of these folks, and others whom I knew, were bright, idealistic, engaged people, committed to doing the best job they could for their country and the Kennedy administration, but after a few days I became more and more uneasy. The tone of the offices I visited reminded me of what I had read about Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. Speaking a bit hyperbolically, it was as though they got up each morning and asked, anxiously, "Did the king have good night? Did he frown when he was awakened? Is his urine clear?" if I may put the same point a good deal more prosaically, they were like academics on soft money appointments who depend each year on the good opinion of the Provost, as opposed to professors in tenure-track positions.

I decided to visit the Senate, and because it was cool in the building, despite the absence of air conditioning [this was 1961], I returned several times. I watched mesmerized as Wayne Morse of Oregon harangued an empty Senate about the efforts of the Catholic Church to influence his vote. I gloried in a hilarious imitation by the wizard of ooze, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, of a duck landing on a pond at dusk, all in opposition to an attempt by duck hunters to get a five million dollar appropriation for the preservation of wetlands. [It seems the duck hunters had asked for, and received, a voluntary five dollar duck hunting license on condition that the money be used for wetlands, and the Eisenhower administration had then put the money into a fund to dry up the wetlands so that they could be residentially developed! Dirksen was all for duck hunting -- hence the imitation -- but was on a budget cutting campaign.] On my last visit, I had the good fortune to see the entire Senate on the floor at one time, voting on the extention of the Civil Rights Commission.

These men and women, some of whom I despised for their racist politics or anti-labor stand, seemed to me genuinely free in a way that my friends in the executive branch did not. Because their authority came from their constituents, not from the favor of a king or president, they were empowered to stand on their feet and speak their minds. I reflected, as I watched them whispering to one another on the Senate floor, that it was not Wayne Morse who was talking to Paul Douglas, but the people of Oregon who were speaking with the people of Illinois.

I fell in love with representative democracy at that moment, and lost my admiration for even the best intentioned executive administrations. Five years later, when I wrote the essay that eventually became In Defense of Anarchism, I regretfully relinquished that love, as logically unsustainable, but to this day, my heart beats a bit faster when I see the members of the House or Senate standing against the tyranny of the presidency with the full weight of their constituents behind them.

Can the dream of rule by the people themelves be rekindled?

That is a subject for a future post.

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