The simplistic model of a representative democracy provides false cover for the U.S. House of Representatives’ complete failure in the recent debacle over a government shutdown and the debt ceiling.
Under that model, it is the job of elected officials to do the bidding of those who elected them. It’s not a model proposed by the Founding Fathers, who developed a representative government in part out of a recognition that the whims of the people sway wildly and often are uninformed. Governance by referendum, they concluded, is no way to have a stable government.
Nonetheless, few will criticize a politician of either party for voting the will of his constituents, even if he questions their wisdom. If a poll indicates the majority of a representative’s constituents oppose Obamacare, they have political cover in waging battle against it. If the majority of voters say they view compromise as weakness, a representative is protected from accusations of brinksmanship.
The problem with this simplistic model of a representative democracy is that it fails to account for the interactive nature of political discourse. Constituents do not just tell their elected official what they want, they rely on the elected official for information. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, is not merely a sponge when he returns to this district, soaking up the wishes of voters. He also is a spigot of information, providing information that his constituents trust.
Like most other elected officials in Alabama, however, Brooks has not been a responsible broker of information. The most obvious example has less to do with substance than procedure.
Brooks, along with U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Tuscaloosa and Mobile, did not merely accede to the wishes of their constituents in casting votes against a bill that ended the government shutdown and raised the debt ceiling. They actively fostered in their constituents the belief that Republicans had enough leverage to undermine Obamacare. It was a claim that most Republicans in Washington found ludicrous. Democrats knew it could not succeed. Nonpartisan political experts realized it was futile. And the truth is that Brooks, Shelby and Sessions also probably knew better.
They have discovered they gain political points with their base by not just accepting the anti-government wishes of their constituents, but by feeding it. If they, as Washington insiders, can not only affirm the fears of voters but push those fears into frenzy, they convince their followers of their ideological purity. Unfortunately, they also lead those followers to adopt falsehoods as fact.
It’s a political game that cost the nation and north Alabama dearly in recent weeks. Despite their rhetoric and their votes, Brooks, Shelby and Sessions were wrong in their claims that the GOP had the leverage to repeal Obamacare. As a result, tens of thousands of Alabamians who rely for their salaries on the federal government were unable to go to work. National parks were closed. People dependent on Headstart and other programs assisting low-income Alabamians suffered. Maybe Alabamians were willing to disrupt their incomes and risk national default on a real chance to repeal Obamacare. What they now realize is they were duped by the demagoguery of politicians they trusted.
Nationally, the shutdown promoted by “fiscal conservatives” cost the nation $24 billion. If the brinksmanship leads to a downgrade in the U.S. bond rating – as remains quite possible – it will cost much more.
The people of Alabama are not irrational, but they depend on the honesty of those they elect to represent them in Congress. Whether the topic is the extent of their political leverage, or the actual provisions of the Affordable Care Act, or the imminent date of the “national bankruptcy” that is Brooks’ fallback, elected officials need to have the courage to forego talking points and instead provide accurate information to their constituents.
The extent to which Alabamians are an informed electorate depends heavily on the courage of their elected officials to provide honest and complete information. By placing their own political ambitions above the success of the nation and of the Republican Party, many of those elected officials have failed miserably.