Friday, October 15, 2010

“They Heard Us, Yet They Ignored Us”

Here’s an ad put out by Colorado senatorial candidate Ken Buck that, according to conservatives over at Power Line and National Review, hits the nail squarely on its head:

Let’s step back from the partisan fray far enough to ask ourselves why conservatives think “they heard us, yet they ignored us” is so powerful a message. Buck’s words invite a pretty obvious response from Democrats: “Of course we ignored views with which we disagree; that’s our prerogative after winning the last election.” To understand why that answer not only doesn’t satisfy, but infuriates, a lot of voters, you have to appreciate the difference between disagreement and disdain.

Suppose Bill and John are having an argument at a bar. Bill says X, and John says not-X loudly and insistently enough that other people start giving him strange looks. Bill puts his arm on John’s shoulder and tells him that he should settle down because the liquor has gone to his head and he’ll regret having said not-X in the morning. Bill’s not only disagreeing with what John said, he’s telling John that he just said something so outlandish that, upon reflection, he’ll disagree with it too. Bill’s not just saying that John's wrong, he’s saying that his present opinion about X doesn’t count.

Depending on the circumstances, Bill’s words to John might be a praiseworthy, or at least an excusable, act of friendship. Maybe Bill knows John well enough to be pretty sure that he doesn’t really mean what he’s now saying and that he really will regret having said it in the morning. So Bill’s ignoring what John said now out of respect for his unimpaired judgment. We all need a little paternalistic supervision occasionally and rely on our friends to provide it when we do. Or maybe Bill’s trying to be good a friend to John, but is mistaken in this case about whether not-X is John’s considered opinion. In the morning, John might still be a little pissed-off at Bill, but forgive him anyway because he meant well.

Yet Bill could also be expressing disdain for John. That would be a fair inference on John’s part if Bill always tries to preempt disagreement by putting a patronizing arm on John’s shoulder. Under those circumstances, John might reasonably resent Bob’s condescension even if, in this particular instance, John finds that he really does believe X upon reflection.  Being wrong is embarrassing, but being treated with contempt is intolerable—even when you’re wrong.  Under the circumstances, you couldn't blame John for finding a new drinking companion.

If “they heard us, yet they ignored us” resonates not only with Tea Partiers, but with a substantial number of Independents, it’s probably because they all feel the sting of the Democrats’ disdain. They're tired of being told that, although they don't yet realize it, they're really going to love what the Democrats have done over the last two years when they reflect on things dispassionately.  It’s possible that at least the Independents among them could still be persuaded that the Democratic agenda makes as much sense today as it did two short years ago.  But they've stopped listening.


Dave said...

Bear with me while I make like a condescending elitist. (I have a strong opinion on this point.)

There is a school of thought that believes that an elected official’s responsibility is to do what he personally believes is in the best interests of his constituents. He acts as our CEO, making decisions that we aren’t capable of. (Not because we’re stupid, but because it’s not our full-time job to get all the facts and weigh all the issues. We try to elect someone “better qualified” to do that for us, just as we hire a mechanic or a plumber.)

I’m firmly in the other school of thought – the one that believes the elected official’s job is to *represent* her constituents, by doing what she believes they want her to do. That doesn’t make her an empty vessel – her job still requires getting the facts, weighing the issues, and persuading her constituency of the wisdom of her conclusions. (She also has autonomy on all of the issues where her constituency has no clear position.) But at the end of the day, when she finds that her constituents do not agree with her, it is her *democratic responsibility* to vote the way that they want, not the way that she wants.

I think it’s those of us who are in this second school of thought for whom “they heard us, and they ignored us” resonates so strongly. (That second school of thought is typically held by conservatives, the former by liberals; but I see no reason why it must be so.)

You speak of the “prerogative” of the winning party to do what they want. (Others say things like “The election’s over, John. I won.” Talk about disdain.) I take issue with this position. I do think there’s a “mandate” – since the representative must deduce the views of her constituency, she can certainly assume that their votes for her indicate support for the platform on which she campaigned. But “I won the election” is by no means the sole indicator of constituents’ views, and in the past two years in particular, constituents have provided plenty of stronger, subsequent indicators.

This, I believe, is why conservatives are so infuriated by health care reform. Naturally, they would have hated the policy no matter the circumstances, but it was the way it was passed – with representatives deliberately “refudiating” (sorry, had to do it) the will of their constituents – that has created this level of outrage. When a representative ignores the will of her constituents, she’s disenfranchising them. (I know, I know: they can vote her out of office. But in doing so, they won’t reverse her vote on PPACA. The deed is done -- otherwise she wouldn't have bothered in the first place.)

The same philosophy underlies (currently conservative, but it goes both ways) outrage about any suggestion that major legislation may be passed in a lame duck session, and both parties’ outrage at “activist judges” who aren’t beholden to the electorate.

We typically talk admiringly about politicians who “stick to their guns” in the face of public disapproval. We call them “principled” and “selfless”. But to those in my school of thought, committing political suicide by voting for a bill that one’s constituency dislikes is neither principled nor selfless: it undermines the one principle that counts most – the principle of representative democracy – in order to selfishly serve the representative’s personal views.

Both Obama and Bush have said they don’t care about polls; instead, they do what they personally believe is right. Clinton, by contrast, reportedly followed the polls religiously, and acted accordingly. This made him a slippery politician, but he served the country well – and if not for his personal scandals, he would have remained a “uniter”, very much unlike the two “dividers” that have followed in the office.

Anonymous said...

Dave -

I understand your point, but I think of political representation as something a little more substantial than stenography.

Poll after poll reveals that the public is only spottily informed, and has lots and lots of contradictory beliefs. For example, a recent Kaiser poll showed that 50% of adults think that the Federal budget can be balanced by cutting "wasteful" spending alone.

People are widely in favor of forcing insurance companies to take customers with preexisting conditions, and widely against an insurance mandate: how do you bridge that gap?

I do believe that the broad mainstream of informed opinion should be, generally, respected. But if we don't have policy crafted by people who understand policy, what kind of country would we end up with???