The Role of Elective, Representative Government

Members of the United States government have sunk to new lows in the past 48 hours. Mr. Trump utilized a racist moniker to denigrate a member of the U.S. Senate during a White House ceremony to honor Navajo code talkers.  The following day, he retweeted three anti-Muslim posts from a British bigoted splinter group.  When the press challenged the Press Secretary about the tweets, pointing out the inaccurate aspects of some of the videos, Ms. Sanders responded that the truth of the video is immaterial to the importance of the issue.

Meanwhile, the GOP has promoted a travesty tax bill because they need some achievement to highlight for their supporters after a year of full control.  Lawmakers are ignoring the impact on the national debt, $1.4 trillion increase, the impact on health care and the impact on various small issues, such as the sudden taxation on college endowments.  Far more distressing, the abject lying from the White House and GOP leadership about the benefits of the bill and the pure fiction doled out that this bill will create a sudden economic boom.  All of this is done as the White House insults opposition leadership to the point that Democrats walk away and refuse to show up for a meeting with the President.

In other news, the man leading in the polls for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama has been fired from his job twice and had a thing for under-aged girls; allegations of sexual harassment have come to light involving members of both the House and Senate; and administration officials are gutting agencies critical to the health, safety and security of the nation.

The appropriate responses to these actions is not throwing up one’s hands and muttering a plague on both houses.  Initially, these immediate events, coupled with all of the prior events of the past year, necessitate a reminder of the role of representatives in a republic.

Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol, made just after they had elected him to Parliament in 1774, remains one of the finest expressions of the role of an elective official.  Burke agreed that a representative should hold his constituent’s views in the highest regards and he should give their wishes the greatest weight. Burke, however, rejected the idea that an official should simply adhere and act on the opinions of his constituents.  As he explained:

But, his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

This aspect of Burke’s speech is well known, but he expanded on it and there, he provided a message that bears careful consideration today.

First, Burke pointed out that governance is not merely a matter of acting on the will of the people. Instead, “Government and Legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination ….”  Second, Burke reemphasize the importance of the representative acting in a manner consistent with his judgment and conscience. For him, to fail to do so “would be utterly unknown to the laws of the land” and constitute a fundamental mistake.  Third, and finally, Burke considered the nature of the government and for whom the representative was working. Burke concluded:

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, not local Prejudices ought to guide, but the general Good, resulting from the general Reason of the whole. You chuse a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament. If the local Constituent should have an Interest, or should form an hasty Opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the Community, the Member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it Effect.

Burke viewed the Constitutional government as an intricate and delicate machine requiring the balancing of broad and varying interests that must be balanced if it at all possible.

Burke’s letter identifies the best and, in truth, ideal character for our members of Congress.  The goals and considerations laid out in the speech to Bristol defines the standard that we should demand for our officials in local, state and federal government. Now, we need to remind our representatives that we expect them to serve in a deliberative body, where they exercise their reason and judgment in order to benefit the entire nation, not merely some small portion of it. Doing so, may help to restore government to what it should be.

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