Historian Gore Vidal said: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.”
On Tuesday, we who care about the future of Attleboro will go to the polls to cast our vote for various city political offices. I intentionally say ‘we who care’ to be provocative. From the tale of populist politics based loosely on the life of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, Governor Willie Stark said this in the fictional movie “All the Kings Men”, one of my favorite get out the vote sayings is: “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter.’
But who do we vote for? There is always a dichotomy: 1) do we want someone to represent our wishes, or 2) do we want someone to use their best judgment?
This dichotomy is famously attributed to the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. He phrased it like this: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Too often we find that politicians of all political persuasions and levels of experience enact legislation to make voters feel good or happy. What is wrong with this? After all, we get the democracy and leadership we deserve.
The problem I have with this is that doing something because it is popular is a behavior that we are all supposed to unlearn before we leave high school. Perhaps more importantly, in the meantime, good people can be negatively affected by politically popular decisions. In John F. Kennedy’s book ‘Profiles in Courage’ (written by his speechwriter Ted Sorenson), the message articulated that doing the right thing in the face of opposition and even sure political death takes courage and is rare.
How we can know what is courageous or populist is tough at times. I’d like to think that perhaps the litmus test for courage involves fear. Fear of a revolt by voters over what the politician feels is in the best long term interest of the jurisdiction he or she represents.
So it seems that the best politician would exhibit qualities of bring a representative and a delegate.
For Whom Should We Vote?
We all know that elections are well funded popularity contests. Usually, it is not the most qualified candidate but the most well liked candidate wins. Sometimes it happens to be the most qualified, sometimes not. And there is nothing wrong with that; we must feel comfortable with who we elect.
But there is another view, if you care about our collective future, you can follow Plato’s advice: “In politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. [But] when we are ill...we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one.” Since there is so little transparency in government, we usually have to fall back on deciding who we trust and who we like the most.
We hear about how the people we vote for term after term become career politicians. When disenfranchised voters don’t see who they like in office, talk of term limits becomes common. Legislatively enacted term limits are not all they are cracked up to be. Term limits destroy the institutional knowledge that is important to legislatures and unintentionally invite more lobbyists in to fill the void. Also, what is more undemocratic than not being able to vote for the person you want? A professor of mine at the Kennedy School often said, “we have term limits and they are called elections.” If you don’t like who is out there, go do something about it yourself by running as someone better or doing everything you can to see that an opponent of the incumbent is victorious.
Perhaps, instead of term limits, we need to have a box on the ballot where voters can check ‘none of the above.’ I’d certainly check this box from time to time. When the ‘none of the above’ results are in, the average voter would find that our elected officials are not as popular as they might seem without this measure, which may encourage new citizens to run for office, and may be a slap in the face to complacent incumbents.
There is no right more protected than the right to vote. It is protected in the 14th, 15th, 19th, 23rd, 24th, and 26th Amendments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”