What Do We Want in a Politician?

This can be asked of almost any politician, but if we focus on US senators, representatives in Parliment, Presidents, etc, I don’t mind. I think the question I ask is generalized properly to fit all of them.

And the question is: what, in a democratic context, do we want from politicians?

One might say, “We want them to listen: that is why we vote.” This meets with opposition when politicians who do this are said to “sell themselves to public opinion” or “the highest bidder” or any number of slandering statements that amount to “wishy-washy”.

Wishy-washy on what? —On any particular standpoint?

For myself, and the position I would put forward and defend, politicians are free variables in a logical problem of living together. They are tools, not ideological totem poles. I don’t want politicians to take stands—unless their constituency does. I want a politician to change with the wind of public opinion. That, to me, is their job in a democracy.

I don’t find it to be character assassination when a politician is accused of not taking sides when sides aren’t clearly drawn. Indeed, I think it is very important to only take sides when the lines are clear.

However, I do see the problem with this. It leads quite quickly to the bromide of “tyranny of the majority”, where majority rules, even to the detriment of the ideals we’re supposed to have. In principle, a constitutional, democratic republic would be roughly modeled like the US in the sense that the principled people are not elected officials. For example, the US Supreme Court is there to ensure that legislation is not just aligned with public opinion, but that it is also aligned with established rule (in the case of the US, the rule being the Constitution).

But not everyone would agree with me that politicians should be no more than a recepticle and agent of public opinion. Some perhaps take a different view.

How should a politician be, ideally? What are you looking for in a candidate, and why do you think those are the right traits? Is it merely a matter of “this guy thinks like me, so he must be cool?” Or is it a deeper feeling that principled politicians are more efficient or better in some way? What way?

A very short lifespan?

In elections, candidates should run on their own morals, beliefs, and convictions, the one that comes closest to matching the majority of voters should then be elected. This would mean someone who would usually vote the way the people want, except for if it came into conflict with their conscience because, when I vote for someone in high office, I want a leader, not a spineless jellyfish who uses poles to determine which decisions to make and how to make them. In that case, let’s get rid of the politicians and just hire polling agencies instead.

So what’s the purpose of a vote other than a poll, Joel? Why wouldn’t we just ditch voting and go straight into an aristocracy of some kind?

I think Joel means public opinion polls. Politicians who automatically do whatever is popular at the moment seem to come off as a tad unprincipled.

The majority of the population, after all, has been wrong before. It will be wrong again. Politicians should be willing to go against their constituancy’s wishes. Otherwise they’re a rubber stamp for the majority, even if the majority is wrong.

We elect politicians to lead the people, not to follow them.

I want a politician who will most effectively advance flowbark’s agenda.

But that’s not really to the point.

------- This meets with opposition when politicians who do this are said to “sell themselves to public opinion” or “the highest bidder” or any number of slandering statements that amount to “wishy-washy”.

Qualification: These are different species of weasel. Weasel #1 is a “demogogue”. Weasel #2 is corrupt: he is in the pocket of “special interests”.

Well, most of us don’t want our leaders to be in the pocket of narrow monied interests. But what about “demogogues”? And what about “flip-floppers”?

Flip-floppers are bad to the extent that it is difficult for voters to figure out what or whom they are voting for. (Frankly, I find this problem to be overdrawn: I can generally figure out which candidate I prefer.)

More substantively, representative Democracy (as opposed to direct democracy) follows from the division of labor principal. Ideally, I want an elected official who will look after my interests and values, which in practice may not mesh well with my stated opinion during a 15 minute poll conducted while I’m preparing dinner.

Admittedly, the case for representative democracy was a lot stronger when there was a larger educational gap between the Congressional elite and the general public. I understand that most 25 year olds have a college education now; this was not the case 40 years ago.

Yet do you feel that electing a guy on a huge set of issues once every couple to six years is really accomplishing this?

I sometimes—ok, very often—feel like we don’t have the “democratic” part of “democratic republic” down, and this is only exacerbated by desiring politicians to ride on principles rather than public opinion. After all, they are supposed to represent us; what, then, would be the problem with representing us? —As we are now, rather than how we might have seemed to the politician three years ago? The average voter gets to express his opinion to a captive political audience only during and immediately previous to election time. The rest of the time, full-time opinion-shovers (aka lobbyists) have the strict attention of any politician in shouting distance.

This is how the labor has divided. I find that inappropriate to democracy. To an enlightened republic a la Plato, ok, can’t argue that. But I don’t think that is how most western societies are intended to be organized.

America doesn’t have a direct democracy (most states have an initiative process which comes pretty close), we have a representative democracy. We elect representatives to make decisions for us. Some we’ll like, some we won’t, that’s just how the system works.
And as for officials who just vote whichever way the wind blows, a person like that can’t have any strong morals or values, granted, those who vote based on getting payoffs from special interest groups probably don’t have strong morals or values either.
When electing someone, I don’t know about you, but I want someone with character, morals, conviction, a since of right and wrong of their own, and not based on what public opinion is.
I do believe that an elected official’s votes should represent the will of the people a majority of the time, but if it’s all the time, then I get the feeling that they are voting the way they do keep their jobs, as opposed to doing what they feel is right, and while I can’t speak for anybody else, I personally don’t want that.

And that’s the point. We won’t, can’t, all be fully informed on all the issues. We want to elect people who we trust represent our personal values and biases to gather all the relevant facts, do the full analysis and present to us why they’ve come to the conclusions that they have. If they are just following whatever the polls say the vast majority happen to believe at that moment given insufficient facts and less complete analysis, then I know that they will abrogate the responsibility to analyze on my behalf if elected. An individual honestly coming to the same conclusions as me on issues that I have thought deeply on, is a good sign that they have the similar values and biases that I have, that I can trust them to be my representative for other issues as well. If they are insincere then such is not true.


Now that I’ve gotten the “Classic Comparison of Representative and Direct Democracy” out of the way, I’ll lower the bar a bit and present the Schattschneider defense:

Sure, pointy-headed academics can argue all they want about the extent to which one system or another may represent the so-called “Will of the People”. But that misses the point. The issue is not our ability to creating some fantastic simulcron of people’s beliefs in a nation’s capital: rather governments can be judged by the extent to which they remain responsive to interests, concerns and problems of the people that they serve. Again, don’t think “Representation”, think, “Responsiveness”.

On these criteria, I’d say that American democracy works quite well. (Pause for flags, banners, and the obligatory parade.)

Besides, what’s the alternative? I myself am too fed up with the initiative process to be a fan of direct democracy. I would support moves towards proportional representation (and away from computer-driven gerrymandering) but I suspect that’s off your main point.

(I know this is risky, but you’re going to have to provide me with an example if I’m to understand your central concern. A hypothetical one would be ok.)

I’d really like to drop the direct democracy angle. Nowhere [in this thread] have I indicated that I wanted to eliminate representatives.


Of course. Even in a direct democracy, decisions will be made that not everyone likes. So?

Who said they weren’t moral? I’m saying they can be as moral as they want. But when they go into congress to represent, they should represent us. Not themselves.

Why isn’t, “I will live up to my job and represent” moral? Democratically, a moral standard would be serving the interests of the citizens. That is why we have democracy. You ask what I would want. I would want a politician that would cast a vote that disagreed with his personal opinions if his personal opinions conflicted with a great majority of citizens. I want a politician who takes his job seriously, rather than a platform on which to advance his own agenda. Crucially, I want this even if my agenda and his agenda are identical.

You’ve put this man in charge of lawmaking (assuming we’re discussing congressmen). Consider an analogy; consider policemen, who we put in charge of enforcing laws. Do you want them to act on their own personal convictions, or do you want them to follow the laws? I have no doubt that all people have a set of moral standards; in public service, those standards must take a back seat to the public’s will, if we are to have a democracy of some sort. To the policeman, the public’s will is ostensibly the laws they enforce. To the congressman, the public’s will is a matter of asking them.

America went to war in Iraq. This is not a platform anyone got elected on. So even if we accepted the dubious premise that being elected grants one carte blanche right to advance the platform one ran on, this still doesn’t tell him what to do in terms of the situation in Iraq. They aren’t representing then, they’re dictating.


Of course. Neither can representatives. They will hire or seek out people to explain it to them. Suppose they also sought the opinions of people in their constituency, within various statistical confidence ratings. Do you feel that this would somehow cripple a government? Suppose they said, “I know how you all feel, but I made this decision, and this is why…” He takes a stand on his opinions like we put him there to, but not without asking us: the people he represents.

How can he know your opinions if he never asks?


Heh. :slight_smile: But now I’ve got to ask: what is your measure here? That a revolution hasn’t occured? That more than 5% of the population votes? That you’re not in jail or dead?

Absolutely off my main point. Here, anyway. Direct democracy is one way to answer my question, but not one I agree with. I am concerned with how we select politicians, and whether this method of selection is actually representative.

In my estimation, it is not. Politicians run on platforms, most of which are rather broad and far-reaching. Supposing that Bush is re-elected, it is virtually guaranteed that any part of his platform is not representative of a large portion of the population—more so if the vote that put him in was another statistical tie. Yet he, like congressmen, now have a free pass to assert their entire platform as if that’s what we really wanted. After all, they won the election, right?

My problem is that this is, at best, a mockery of representation. In large populations, the number of people needed to be polled to yield a statistically sound measure of opinion is not very large itself. Perhaps a politician won’t conduct polls on whether or not they should authorize a flag being put up in some obscure wing of some government building. But maybe they should take it to the streets when critical issues come up.

The question brought up there, then, is, “But erl, what’s a critical issue?” A few qualifications, then. First, a critical issue would be one that is absent from a stated platform. How could we have granted any representative the authority to act on something no one foresaw? Second, a critical issue would be one that will grant or revoke legislative privileges to groups of citizens. So the creation of a protected class, or the removal of a law against marijuana, would require checking with the common folks. Third, a critical issue would be anything the politician thinks is a critical issue. Obviously they are still representatives and will have to make many judgment calls themselves.

To reiterate (though to make a different point with it) they are still representatives and will have to make many judgment calls themselves. They will be deciding all sorts of things without consulting their constituency at every turn; indeed, if they had to do otherwise, then we lose efficiency when compared to a direct democracy. Also, they may still make a decision that goes against their constituency. It might not be popular to grant equal rights to homosexuals, but Joe Representative might tell Joe Homophobe to go piss anyway, this is good for the country and anyone who knows what I know about government and social interaction could see it.


I think you are overlooking an important distinction between representatives and public servants. Police officers are among the latter. They aren’t supposed to represent us; they are supposed to enforce the law. This should apply to all members of the executive and judicial branches. They shouldn’t try to determine what the people really want them to do; they should just do their jobs.

So the representatives are the lawmakers. As others have alluded to, we need them for leadership as well as representation. I agree with your view: they should listen to the people. But they should also lead. If they think the majority is wrong they should take that issue to the people and try to change their views. If the representative can’t then they should follow the will of the majority. If to do so would violate a legislator’s ethics they should resign rather than refuse their responsibility to represent.

That’s what I want from a representative. Someone with the courage to confront their constituency when they are wrong yet with the humility to go along if they can’t change the will of the majority.

Eris: “But now I’ve got to ask: what is your measure here? That a revolution hasn’t occurred? That more than 5% of the population votes? That you’re not in jail or dead?”

I think the measurement problem can be finessed. One could compare Saudi Arabia, Chile under Pinochet, Burma or even Sierra Leone with any modern democracy. Under tyranny, there are interest groups, but it’s a winner-take-all framework: those who are not part of the core constituency are often ignored (to varying degrees, in practice). Certain issues are allocated to one group or another -there’s less give and take.

The real problem is that “Responsive” is a rather low bar. Heck, all governments all “Responsive” to one degree or another: if you jolt a dead frog with electricity, it will twitch. Now it’s true that democracies typically construct a more detailed process of deliberation than tyrannies do. (And, indeed I understand that Habermaas makes the “Deliberative” criteria central to his framework.) But the question of whether the right decisions (or nearly right decisions) are made is swept under the carpet.

This is a bit of a tangent; I need to chew over the central issues a little more. Also I should state explicitly that my recollection of Schattschneider is extremely fuzzy and that I have never read a single chapter by Habermaas. Indeed, I would guess that my presentation of their ideas is grossly unfair in certain ways…


Your more recent articulation strays some from your initial “I want a politician to change with the wind of public opinion.” Now you merely want a politico to be aware of how the public feels and to factor it into the analysis. That is fine and has always been an expectation. I have never heard of a politician who was not interested in what the public thought and wasn’t having someone look back and see if others were following where he wanted to lead. The difference is between being aware of the various public opionions and (to steal from the Trek threads) being a panda.

Let me illustrate with two real life examples.

Remember the dipwad Dukakis? Part of why I disliked him was that when he was accused of being a member of the ACLU he was apologetic because he had listened to pollsters who had said that the public didn’t like “liberals” at that time. He could have strongly pointed out that nothing is more patriotic than standing up for the core values of the constitution, that defending the right to say only things that you agree with is an Disneyland defense of freedom of speech, that unless you defend the rights of others to say things that you find disagreeable you do you are a poseur patriot. He could have led, and even those who disagreed might have softened their opposition to his point of view. Some may have followed. But he followed the polls. Wimp.

Now take Bush. I dislike him and most of his policies. But I admire that despite the polls he has stood by what he believes to be the truth regarding our need to pay for the Iraqi rebuild. To abrogate the responsility to follow up and rebuild would be beneath reprehension. It certainly won’t be enough for me to vote for him but it softens my opposition.

The laws that were made, ostensibly, under our authority. Police represent the physical force we, as a population, have ceeded to rule of law. They are very much representatives in that regard; how they represent us is a difference of kind, I agree.

flowbark, take your time. Your thoughts are always worth hearing, and I’m in no hurry. :slight_smile:

So, you missed my point entirely. You’re arguing that lawmakers should only vote the way that the majority feels, and I was trying to tell you that that’s not the way our system of democracy works.

Nothing immoral about representing the will of the people, unless it goes against your own morals values and ethics. And you they do you no good if you don’t stick to them. If you feel something is wrong but vote for it anyway, you’re not sticking to them. Remember might doesn’t make right, and going along with popular opinion doesn’t necessarily mean doing the right thing.

So then you don’t want anybody of integrity or a mind of their own, what you want is a yes man (or woman). The way you want a politician to be, they’d just be a useless middle man. With your way of doing things we don’t need most elected officials, at least the law makers anyway. We could just to a direct democracy.

Some, yes, but more that I overstated my case. I do hold public opinion to be the primary determiner of course of action. After all, we are why they are there. We are not an inconvenience, or a group of people in the way of advancing personal politics.

Two premises support my point. One, representatives are there to represent our views and opinions. Two, to know our opinions, we must be asked. This is the “democratic” part of a democratic republic.

The republic part wants to replace “opinions” with “interests”, as if the general public was too dumb to know what they actually wanted. This is an error only arrogance can make, and I say that with much scorn for the idea. I find it equivalent to only allowing (for example) people with bachelor’s degrees or higher to vote. Joe Mechanic does not necessarily need to be led around. And he has much more to say than just checking a box. If you don’t believe me, take a look at these forums. Opinions are larger, and stronger, than any ballot can ever hope to approximate.

Instead, the union of “democracy” and “republic” should be leaders who exist primarily to serve the public, but who will guide us as need be. As it is now, the cost of taking personal initiative can be loss of future elections. I do not seek to remove the power congressmen currently hold, but rather to raise the bar of expectations. I seek to answer the question, “What do we want in a politician” with “more than we have now, and here’s what: …”

Notice again my democratic part, and think of what a vote means. First, it means, “I want this man to represent me,” and two, it means, “I want these views advanced.” Almost no one I know feels their vote means exactly that; almost everyone I know (IRL and online here in forums) feel that voting is a compromise. I think it is a sham dressed up as compromise. I don’t mind Bush representing me, so long as he only ignores us when he feels sure that he’s acting for our own good, and is prepared to accept the consequences of his actions rather than hiding behind, for example, ambiguity and blank-outs (ie not answering direct questions). Right now, our politicians have no one to answer to other than the police and the courts… until voting time comes around. But during those two/four/six years, they are pretty busy. I think that shows a very large gap in accountability and responsibility.

It is not just a politician’s job to lead; they also must listen. And not to lobbyists, or interest groups. And who knows what they do with the letters and emails sent to them about various issues. Politics is an activity, and if a large portion of the population is abulic about participation, that does not indicate that they are opinionless, nor does it indicate that they can safely be ignored.

Why not? Why can’t we ignore people who don’t get out to the polls? —Because they are the ones who may live with, enforce, exercise, etc the laws politicians pass. The utility of a law is only as good as the people that will follow and enforce it, and that is far larger than any population that makes it to the polls.

Fair, but understated.

Probably just what this thread needs. :slight_smile:

The cost of leadership is the fact that all choices can undo your position. This is true whether he stood firm or not, I trust you’ll see, since if he stood firm, the public might have reacted in many ways, including skipping his name when everything came down to a vote.

Joel, alas the phone just rang. I will respond when I can.

I’m going to try to break the problem down into parts. The first set of points I’m laying out so that they may be set aside.

  1. One could argue for Representative Democracy over Direct Democracy even with the belief that Joe Mechanic is a political genius. Joe knows broadly what he wants, but there’s a lot of detail involved in crafting legislation that doesn’t make its way into the papers. So Joe lets his elected representative handle the minutia.

  2. But how much latitude should the representative be given? Here, there are 2 issues.
    a) What’s the educational gap between the Rep and Joe Mechanic? 100 years ago it was “large”. Now, I’m willing to say it is “small”.
    b) Ok, but let’s face it the Rep is going to be more conversant about even large issues. Most Americans tell pollsters that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda have an intimate relationship. Those in Washington know better.

  1. Ah, but #1 and #2 vastly distort that actual legislative process that goes on. These aren’t scholars sitting around deciding policy, these are politicians trading horses and figuring out ways to craft votes that will endear them to their constituents and make the opposition look bad. [Incidentally, there was a terrific episode of This American Life which covered this entitled, “The Annoying Gap Between Theory and Practice. —A man gets himself elected to the state legislature to try and make the world a better place, but finds that personal principles and representative democracy aren’t always the best fit. Plus other stories about the difficulty of turning abstract ideas into hard cold reality.”]

So where are we left? In practice, the public are morons and their elected officials perfidious. (Bear with me, I’m on a roll.)

  1. Although your typical TV-viewer is wholly unqualified to decide whether or not the US should invade Iraq and our elected politicians could care less, Joe Mechanic is good for one thing.

Joe can evaluate the outcome of these policies. Or, at least he can do this better than he can craft policy on his own. It is for this reason that politicians fear making the wrong vote. Not because of a priori policy disagreements. But because something might happen - the Iraqi public could welcome their invaders with flowers and fragrance (or they could engage in a protracted guerilla war) which potentially makes a vote look foolish and ill-advised.

Here, retrospective bias helps us. It makes the perfidious conduct due diligence and it permits the public to have a comprehensive knowledge of sport scores and celebrities.

Persuasive, flowbark.

My initial reaction is to then say, due to the comment on retrospection, that sunset clauses could aid the process to ensure that there are not impediments to overturning crappy to could-be-lots-better legislation.

Yet, here again, I see the incredible value in taking it to the polls. After all, sure Joe Anyone has hindsight. But can we genuinely reflect what we learned in the polls…?

Points one and three are especially well-received. I am idealizing things a bit.

A beard and a stovepipe hat.