Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bernstein On Norms Of Democratic Representation

Jonathan Bernstein teaches political science at UT-San Antonio, and I've been mulling over his views about political representation lately. Bernstein writes that politicians in a democracy
have masters -- they serve their constituents. They are in office, as Hanna Pitkin says, to re-present those constituents: to make them present, even though they are not present. In doing so, they are guided by the contract they have with their constituents, which is composed of the promises the politician made while campaigning for office. Some of those are about public policy: I will oppose abortion. I will support a public option. Some are partisan: I will be a Democrat. Or, I will be a Democrat, but I'll side with the district if there's a conflict...

Good representation, following Richard Fenno, is about having a strong representational relationship. And (and here I'm on my own, I think) it is not for me, or Andrew, or Burke, or Pitkin to say what sorts of representation are best. That's a matter for each individual elected official and his or her constituents to work out for themselves. Moreover, I argue that the ability to do this, to make promises, interpret them, govern with those promises and future explanations in mind, to explain what one has done, and then campaign again, is the real skill of politicians. Of course that takes judgment, and it certainly takes practical wisdom. A particular kind of judgment, however -- political judgment that helps a pol know how public policy decisions are related to what they've promised....
These promises can be of various kinds. The voters could regard their representatives as moral authorities and make them promise simply to vote their conscience. They could demand particular votes on particular issues. Or they could demand other wacky things:
My favorite examples of promises are gender and ethnic promises, generally made by "firsts" to hold some particular office. Sometimes, it seems as if that's the only promise such a candidate makes -- to "be" Jewish, or Polish, or African American, or female, or gay. Breaking that promise could be a matter of wearing the wrong clothes or eating the wrong foods, much more so than any particular "wrong" vote one could cast. Often, by the next generation, those descriptive traits -- while still just as much there as before -- are no longer the subject of promises. There are other kinds of promises, too...how bound is Scott Brown to that pickup truck?
I see what Bernstein is getting at, but I don't know if 'promise' is the right word for this kind of thing. It captures the element of commitment but makes the arrangement a bit too explicit. So what was it Larry Craig had with conservative voters of Idaho about acting straight that was violated when he sought gay sex in the airport? An understanding? A tacit agreement? I guess I'll go with 'agreement', with the 'possibly tacit' being tacit in what follows.

The big question that interests me is how we're supposed to understand these agreements in the context of normative theory more broadly. It's a question that comes up in Bernstein's discussions with commenters:
ASP also asks whether, by my standards, it would be impossible to call someone a bad representative if she chooses a bad policy that is in accord to the promises she's made to constituents (I hope that's a fair summary). Good question. I guess my first instinct would be to weasel around it...there's always, presumably, an unspoken promise not to start a war on false premises, or to butcher the execution of a war, and perhaps that overrides the more explicit pledges to invade Iraq. But my less weaselly position is, I do think that one can be a good representative while also doing evil things. It may be unethical -- it was unethical -- to be a pro-segregation politician. But while it was unethical to do it in the first place, they might still have been "good" representatives, in the sense that they built & maintained strong rep. relationships with their constituents
I like Bernstein's non-weaselly position, and I have a little to say about how that position should be understood.

Backing up a little bit, there are lots of different kinds of norms and values, of which moral norms and values are only one kind. Also, there are norms of etiquette, hygiene, driving, and logic. Bernstein is right to distinguish the norms of representation he's talking about from moral norms, just as norms of etiquette are so distinguished. I'm sure Bernstein's view isn't the only view of representation out there, and he's in debate with other people just as we can debate questions of what's moral or what constitutes proper etiquette.

Sometimes the moral thing to do will coincide with the thing someone ought to do as a democratic representative. This happens fairly often, and it's part of why democracy is a better system of government than lots of others. But it's not always the case, and that's part of why democracy isn't perfect.

According commonsense views about moral norms, the fact that you agreed to do something gives you a defeasible moral obligation to do it. The obligation can be defeated if you agreed to do something terrible, or more commonly, if it conflicts with something of much greater significance. But usually, agreeing to do something gives you a moral obligation to do it. So on these views combined with Bernstein's view of representation, "You're not representing the citizens!" plus the assumption that the defeaters don't obtain gives you a genuine piece of moral criticism. If the defeaters obtain, you've done the right thing but failed to represent the citizens, which is the flip side of Bernstein's position on segregation.

Of course, there are other views of morality. I'm a hedonic utilitarian, and I don't think that there are fundamental moral norms beyond those grounded in the goodness of pleasure and the badness of displeasure. So apart from their consequences for pleasure and displeasure, agreements don't matter. "You're not representing the citizens!" isn't itself moral criticism, though it's often said in cases where people are doing net pleasure-reducing and thus morally bad things.

On either of these views, morality doesn't necessarily direct you to represent the citizens. Why will politicians take representation seriously, then? Of course, they don't want to lose their jobs. But that need not be the only reason. "You're not representing the citizens!" is something that I'm guessing politicians don't like to hear, for its own sake. They've been raised in a culture with a representative democracy. This shapes what they want. Even more, our culture looks very negatively on violating one's agreements with others, which is what failures of representation consist in according to Bernstein. Whether because of moral beliefs about agreements or just for its own sake, we care about sticking to what we agreed to do.

This last thing, I think, is what accounts for the force of Bernstein's position. For whatever reason, we care about not violating agreements. When Bernstein puts representation in terms of agreements, it gives representation greater weight than we might've taken it to have.
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