A Trustee Not a Delegate

This piece on Tom Perriello has gotten a fair bit of coverage over the past two days. And justifiably so. You see, Perriello actually understands his job as a Congressman in a constitutional republic/representative democracy. Unlike his peers who obsess over poll numbers and the next election, he instead is focused on “doing the best damn job (he) could do representing the people of the 5th District and making a difference.”

This brings us to a larger point- our representatives ought to serve as trustees, not delegates. The greatest achievement of representative democracy is its tempering of majorities and the masses. Senators and representatives are free to vote in whatever way they believe is in the best interests of their constituents, their state or region, the country and/or their party. This autonomy provides a bulwark against popular delusions of the masses, and allows members of Congress to think beyond short term political gain.

However, there are those who would have our senators and representatives vote strictly according to the wishes of a majority of his/her constituents. But not only would this result in crude majoritarianism, but how would we determine the true majority will of the constituents? Should members of Congress poll their districts/states before all votes? Just major votes? Should the poll results from a similar question six months ago remain valid for a vote today? Obviously, one can take this to absurd extremes, but they remain valid questions.

Even in our trustee style system, politicians will still not stray too far from what their constituents desire. There are, obviously, strong political pressures not to deviate, including the desire to be re-elected. And that is as it should be. But we should also expect our members of Congress to see beyond our own parochial and short term interests.

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