Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is Your Representative A Public Servant or A "Pollitician"?

No, the title is not a typo. In my mind, "pollitician" aptly describes the type of politician that puts polls and public opinion ahead of everything in deciding how to cast a vote. These days it's becoming painfully clear that "polliticians", the antitheses of public servants, dominate our political landscape.

Surely, as every politician knows, there is a significant tension between representing the will of the majority and serving the people's best interest. To a large degree, politics is a popularity contest, more than one of skills, competence or effectiveness. Politicians will do almost anything to get elected, including doing the will of the majority of the people, even when they know that the majority of the people is wrong (take, for example, slavery, segregation, supporting the death penalty in spite of its known racial bias, teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution in backward states, etc.) or the will of special interests. Some do so for personal gain, some with deeply-held conviction, and some because they take the term "representative democracy" too literally. You see, they do not realize or they pretend not to) that the term "representative democracy" is--to some degree--a misnomer.

"Representative democracy" is often (and mistakenly) used as a synonym for "the will of the [majority of] the people," and is easily misinterpreted as such when it is convenient to do so. However, it should not be a paramount concern for a representative to fathom or to mirror the will of the majority. If that was a representative's primary function, then we would be better served by direct democracy, instead of representative democracy. But we know the dangers of direct democracy, because we have seen several examples throughout history, past and recent, of how majorities are often wrong and easily misled, so we have come to accept the fact that it is best to delegate decisions to our elected "representatives."

If the will of the majority should not be the primary concern, neither should it be the politician's own survival or self-interest. And yet, these days we are hearing that this or that politician is leaning towards casting a vote for or against health care reform, not because of his personal convictions, or with his constituents' best interest in mind, but because he is coming up for re-election. So now you know what I mean by "pollitician".

At the other end of the spectrum we have those politicians who understand and correctly interpret their role as public servants: honest, principled and intelligent politicians, who know that their duty is to represent people's best interest, not individual or particular interests, nor the majority's will, and who understand that today's majority may very well turn into tomorrow's minority, and viceversa, so that the only correct vote is an ethical, principled vote. In deciding how to cast a vote, or how to shape legislation, public servants do so after weighing all special interests against all known facts, taking future trends and outcomes into account. If necessary, they even sacrifice their own careers in the process, rather than to lie to and appeas the majority simply to get elected.

If you want to improve the state of the union, the next time you go to the polls ask yourself if your elected representative is a public servant or a "pollitician": Re-elect the former, an be sure to ditch the latter, without hesitation.

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