It’s an often cited conservative response that our nation is not a democracy but a republic, defined as the supreme power held by the people and their elected representatives. Yet, for several decades now, people have been displaying a growing intolerance for the behavior of their elected representatives, especially with respect to responses to clearly evident expressions of constituent issues and concerns.
The abrupt adjournment of the special session of the Virginia General Assembly in July to consider gun legislation fits the paradigm of legislators, on their own, refusing to consider clearly expressed electoral issues. With the background of a national policy debate on the matter of gun control laws, Virginia legislators, it can be said, had a responsibility to listen, even to the voices of opposition groups. The entire membership of the General Assembly had not been requested to vote one way or another, on one measure or another, merely to take the lead and listen, consider.
The more damaging result of the GA’s refusal to discuss the issues is the fact that the adjournment was initiated and executed on a party-line vote. Thus, whether Democrats or Republicans had some interests and concerns to express and be considered, the dialogue was mooted and further isolated and hardened into political party positions. Only voters and constituents were damaged. The two parties could trade criticisms of one another: Democrats who initiated the session were accused of promoting the Governor’s damaged reputation, while Republicans were shaded as intransigent.
Perhaps more to the point, before the November elections, our in-boxes and media devices will be swollen with appeals from candidates, including incumbents, each proclaiming to want to know our opinions. Citizens and grassroots groups will add to the messaging cacophony with requests to support causes and issues to be communicated to candidates. It’s the opportunity for voters and constituents to voice their opinions. Will they listen? Not if this special session is any example. The phenomenon is nonpartisan.
When the community or society experiences a breakdown of standards and values previously common in the polity, the result is instability, generally characterized by the sociological term anomie, defined as a lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group. One of the political threads that was woven into the emergence of the Tea Party a decade ago was the sense that elected leaders, particularly legislators, were not hearing the pleas of constituent voters. It will not come as a surprise that academic research has been conducted on this phenomenon. What is surprising are the observations and results of that study.
In an OpEd article in The New York Times (July 12, 2019), two professors shared their research in an article entitled “Politicians Don’t Care What You Think”; this is their hypothesis:
If voters in a legislative district have certain views about . . . abortion, we assume that their representative’s decisions will be shaped, or at least influenced, by those views. . . . [D]emocracy depends on this assumption: The beliefs of voters should be reflected, however imperfectly, in the leaders they choose.
Engaging over 2,300 state legislators, the researchers provided detailed data from individual districts and national attitudes on specific topics in two separate experiments. The responses from the legislators seemed to defy the very definition and function of the term legislator or representative:
In the average legislative district in our experiment, seven out of ten constituents support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. But when legislators were asked how many of their constituents they believed supported such a policy, they responded that fewer than two out of ten did—even if they’d seen their own constituents’ preferences.
Is it any wonder that “fake news,” QAnon, and white identity groups are infecting our standards and values and gaining in national discourse? The researchers published their study (July 7, 2019), offering for consideration by readers the following:
Our results are sobering. While previous research has established that elected officials systematically misperceive what their constituents want, the evidence presented here portrays such officials as virtually immune to these nonpartisan efforts to correct those misperceptions, possibly opening the door to influence from lobbyists and donors. Legislators do not update their attitudes to match their constituents’ on salient political issues, even when the requisite information is quite literally at their fingertips.
Two potential explanations emerge. . . . First, legislators may discount aggregate measures of their constituents’ attitudes, and instead focus exclusively on political elites, lobbyists, donors, and other policy-demanders whom they view as more central to their electoral prospects. Knowing what the average constituent believes on policy matters may be less important to elected officials than knowing what lobbyists and donors believe. . . . Second, given increasing levels of polarization in statehouses and the “nationalization” of U.S. politics, legislators may think of themselves not as delegates for their specific constituents, but as participants in national partisan debates. Knowing what their constituents believe on policy matters may be less important than knowing the positions of their national party—and sticking to them.
Sobering results? The instability that characterizes this kind of anomie is that which cultivates class war and ultimately civil war. The silence of the leadership and elected officials of the GOP are also testimony to this tone deafness. Nor is the phenomenon limited to Republicans. In whatever way we have allowed this to happen, encouraged or condoned it, we—the voters, the constituents—have the supreme power to change it before it is too late. If legislators ae not listening, they must be replaced.
Voters and constituents disaffected by anomie create an opening for populism, or even anarchy, to become the rule of the community. Neither democracy nor a republic can thrive in such circumstances. It is the duty of legislators to improve the consonance between their conduct and the communications from their supporters. Will they listen?