Catch of the Day: Politicians With Political Motives

Representation involves a relationship between a politician and constituents.
Backing down made sense. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The Catch goes to Seth Masket, who writes about the motives for politicians' actions, using the example of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's veto of a state law that allowed business owners the right to deny service to gay and lesbian customers:

One of the silliest criticisms of a politician's vote or veto, though, is that they were motivated by politics. Of course a politician's actions are motivated by politics. Indeed, we want our politicians to be motivated by politics. That means they're concerned about things like representing voters and not embarrassing their party or their government. That's part of representative democracy. It's the politicians who aren't motivated by politics who are potentially dangerous. Luckily, they tend not to have long careers.


Let me back up slightly. I agree that we want politicians to be motivated by politics, and that the right thing for a politician to do is to represent her constituents.

But representation isn't a simple matter. It involves a relationship between a politician and constituents, in which the politician makes promises, takes actions in office that are informed by those promises and then explains those actions in terms of the promises.

But promises aren't merely about specific actions on questions of public policy ("I support marriage equality" or "I support our Second Amendment rights"). They're also about how a candidate will act once in office. These promises might be explicit ("I will always listen to the will of the people"), or they may be implicit.

My favorite example is a politician who is the "first" of a particular group to run for office and who basically campaigns on ethnicity, implicitly promising to represent that group. Such a candidate would be assailed for breaking his promises if he was caught acting against ethnic type, rather than simply being criticized for voting the wrong way on some issue.

Thinking about representation this way also helps us understand the old tension between "mandate" and "independence" representation -- that is, the difference between whether politicians should vote as their constituents would or whether they should act on their own beliefs. The answer depends, it turns out, on what a politician has promised to her constituents. Has she said that she is an expert on economic development, and that she would do whatever it took to create jobs? Or has she said that she's "one of us" and will carry the voices of the people to Washington (or Phoenix, or wherever)? The different types of promises imply very different approaches. Moreover, there's evidence (see, for example, the representation studies by Richard Fenno) that politicians really are constrained by these types of promises.

Again, all of this is "political" in the sense of trying to fulfill promises and, therefore, represent constituents. And as Seth says, this is exactly what we want. In short, democracies need strong, successful representation, not politicians who simply do what they believe is right.

And: nice catch!

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