Column | What Are Our Representatives Supposed to Do?

During America’s founding era, a significant debate took place about the nature of representation in a democratically elected government. Were representatives supposed to act as simple proxies for their constituents? Or were they supposed to exercise independent judgment? Edmund Burke was a forceful advocate for the latter position: A representative, he said, was supposed to exercise his “mature judgment, his enlightened conscience. And “he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.” John Stuart Mill, too, believed that representatives ought to act independently; he said: “A person whose desires and impulses are his own...is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.”

Then there were those who argued that to exercise independent judgment would be to betray voters, that they sent you there with a mission, and your job is to fulfill that mission. This so-called delegate view of representation is supremely transactional – we only bother electing representatives in this view in order to do the work we’re not willing to do. They aren’t elected to spend time learning about the issues or broaden their perspective beyond the regional. They’re there to do what you want them to do.

This debate has finally come to a head recently, not because sectional representatives have forgone their voters but because characterless people are running for office more and more. Those who believe in the Burkean model oppose such people – we say that to put those without character in charge of policy is to leave our future in the hands of the untrustworthy. Those who believe in the delegate model can embrace such people – they say that so long as the representative votes the right way on the issues, they can murder dogs in the backyard or allegedly molest young girls. Nina Burleigh’s perspective on then-President Bill Clinton falls into this second camp. “I would be happy to give him a blow job just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” she said. So does Rep. Mo Brooks’ perspective on Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. He said: “Roy Moore will vote right ... That’s why I’m voting for Roy Moore.”

There’s a certain freedom to this perspective. It allows us to forgo discussion about the nature of the people we support – so long as they’re not lying about how they vote, we can trust them in office. The founders, however, would have rejected this perspective. The Federalist Papers are replete with explanations of just why a good government would require good men. The founders greatly feared the constraints of a parchment barrier against characterless men; they didn’t trust human nature enough to believe that child molesters or puppy torturers would be bound by simple conformity with the public will.

And the founders were right. History has shown that bad men in positions of power rarely get better; they often get worse. They tend to abuse power. They tend to exercise their judgment – or lack thereof – even when they pledge to do otherwise. That means that we must measure our candidates for character as well as position. “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof,” President John Adams prayed regarding the White House. He didn’t pray that they agree with him on tariffs.