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Traditional American Values

US: Should Our Politicians Leader Or Represent Us? – by J.T. Young

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Washington’s recent crisis showcased not only fiscal differences, but differing governing paradigms. While the public clamor was for leadership to resolve the standoff, the crisis was fueled by both sides representing their constituencies’ ideological priorities.

At the heart of our government from its inception, this choice between leadership and representation now lies firmly in favor of the latter — and America is feeling its full effect.

The fight over government funding and the debt limit unfolded like a train wreck in slow motion. All saw it coming — not just in Washington, but across the country. Yet no one was able to stop it from happening, or even to resolve it once it began.

Throughout, the absence of leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue was bemoaned.

What happened, however, was the culmination of a process that’s been underway for some time. The political vacuum in leadership has been filled by representation.

The debate over politicians’ role — lead us or represent us — began with the Constitution. Designed to accommodate both goals, it leaned toward insulating those elected to the federal government from the electorate — senators were elected by the state legislatures, the president by electors.

The Constitution was to be a filter between electorate and elected. There was to be some separation between decision makers and the people. They were to be of us, but apart.

The movement that has occurred in American politics, especially of late, is to narrow that distance between electors and elected. There is now no more fatal charge in American politics than to be seen as disconnected from those whose votes you seek.

In contrast, leadership means being at least ahead of where the people are. If it does not mean being entirely separate from them, it at least means being somewhat apart.

This distance has been closed in many ways. Some have been formal — senators have been directly elected for a century and presidential electors are generally formally committed to a presidential candidate.

However, increased connectivity to the people goes much further.

Political parties’ influence has greatly diminished. Nominating conventions, where party bosses chose their candidates, no longer prevail.

Today, primaries allow voters to dictate candidates to parties — often to party leaders’ great frustration — and the parties’ prospects.

Nor is the fourth estate immune. Politicians’ instant and continuous access to the media also increases their independence from it. With the new social media, the established media’s power is further diminished. And the more provocative the politicians, the more attention received and the more independent they become.

Polls, once a rarity, are now common, giving politicians instant and continuous access to public opinion. Such ready access greatly enhances politicians’ ability to follow opinion, but it also greatly reduces their willingness to deviate from it. Why risk trying to lead opinion when you already know where prevailing sentiment lies?

For decades, virtually every change in American politics has served to eliminate the filter between the politician and the electorate — not just in campaigns, but throughout their entire time in office. Many have seen this as increasing politicians’ freedom vis-a-vis the political parties — making them political free agents.

However, it is freedom from only one perspective. Politicians are now even more beholden to the electorate, and anything but free.

How, then, do we expect them to behave otherwise than we repeatedly see? It is almost surprising that they exhibit as much independence from the electorate as some do on occasion.

Ironically, while politicians are more connected to the electorate than ever, Congress’ approval ratings are historically low. Nor is the presidency immune. As a recent Gallup poll shows, Obama’s approval ratings (44.5%) are strikingly low for so early in his second term. This most publicly connected of presidents is suffering a fate similar to Congress’.

With each crisis, we say we want leadership from our politicians. The easy and conventional answer is to say that it is our leaders who have brought us here, that they should lead us out, and that it is their fault, not ours, if they do not.

However the real answer is in many ways just the opposite of that scenario. Every innovation in our political system has increased their followership of us.

Today’s politicians have not been elected to lead us, but to represent us. In that, they have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams — and beyond the worst nightmares of our Founders. The conflicts we see in Washington are not extraneous to our political system, but those existing in the electorate itself and which our system has evolved into accentuating.

* Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

Source: Investors Business Daily

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