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Politicians and American Absolutism

March 3, 2010

Jerry Brown's official portrait.

The LA Times Sacramento common wisdom-er George Skelton writes today about Jerry Brown, “recently announced” Democratic candidate for Governor in California, and his reaction to Prop. 13 (taxes can only be raised with two-thirds of the Legislature), which was passed during Brown’s previous term as Governor in 1978. Prop. 13 is generally reviled among California progressives, a group that Brown likely considers himself a part, but, after the passage of the proposition, Brown became a “born-again tax cutter,” in his own words. Skelton, after noting that opponents have derided Brown as a flip-flopper, writes the following, which gets at something I’ve long that was amiss in American politics:

But wait! Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? An elected official may try to lead — as Brown did against Prop. 13 — but when he doesn’t attract many followers, the prudent move is to fall back in line and take marching orders from the voters. That’s called representative democracy.

That is what’s called representative democracy. Unfortunately, our democracy is American, not representative. While I was in France a few years ago, Ségolène Royal of the Parti Socialiste was preparing for her run against Nicholas Sarkozy by conducting a listening tour against in order to help formulate her platform, a method that seems to me unthinkable in the US. We expect our politicians to be strong in their beliefs, unwavering in their convictions, to never compromise, to always no what’s right and wrong, to never admit a mistake. If they wrong, if they change their mind, we throw them out of office. John Kerry could tell us something about this.

But are flip-flops really an inherently bad action? Couldn’t certain facts have changed or become clearer would, for a politician or any rational person, caused a change in opinion? Democracy functions by tying a politician’s self-interest to the good of the people. Wouldn’t we want an elected official to change his mind if a vote showed him that his current position was in fact not supported by those who elected him? That way, voters don’t have to wait the next election to have our will enacted.

Two caveats:

  • I’m not saying that we should give politicians a free pass when they flip-flop, especially when it is in response to interests other than their constituents. Voters need to be able to trust their politicians and unrestrained flip-flopping would obviously degrade any trust.
  • Although they’re should be compelled by the needs and will of their constituents, there is something called leadership, which is often absent today. Sometimes, an elected official is in a unique position to understand what is the right path of action, either morally or practically, and in those certain instances it is their duty to lead, to convince the rest of us why their path is the right one.

In the case of Prop. 13, I would say Jerry Brown was justified in adjusting his tack to be more in line with his constituents. He got the clearest signal he could get: a vote of the exact same electorate that put him in office. On the other hand, I wish he would have shown some leadership and explained why Prop. 13 was not in fact in the state’s best interest. For politicians, there always will be a tension between leading and following the voters, between holding onto your beliefs and getting reelected, and their job is deal with it. It’s a spectrum, not a black and white issue, just like almost every other issue that is debated today, and I think we voters would allow our representatives to be more effective if we recognized that.

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