In April 2006, I interviewed Daniel Rosen, a Nevada candidate for the northern U.S. House seat. He had a theory of using new technology for the public to vote, through him, on matters before Congress.
I pointed out that the founders created republican representation for good purposes, among them to protect us from peoples’ fleeting passions. I asked him, “Suppose the people vote for lynching or for gassing Jews? Would you vote in concert with their wishes?”
He wriggled a bit, but in the end he said, “I will vote without recourse and without waver according to the direction of the majority of the voters.”
This expressed the notion that Sen. John Kennedy once described as “a view that assumes the people of Massachusetts sent me to Washington to serve merely as a seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion.”
Rosen wasn’t a major candidate, so his views didn’t cause a strong reaction. But when a sitting member of the Nevada Legislature said something similar on camera last month, it got a lot more attention. Douglas County Assemblymember Jim Wheeler was asked, “[W]hat if those citizens decided they wanted to, say, bring back slavery? Hey, if it’s what the citizens want? Right, Jim?”
Wheeler then replied, “If that’s what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose, I’d have to bite my tongue and they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yes, if that’s what the citizens of the – if that’s what the constituency wants that elected me, that’s what they elected me for. That’s what a republic is about. You elected a person for your district to do your wants and wishes, not the wants and wishes of a special interest, not his own wants and wishes, yours.”
Wheeler later claimed he was speaking “facetiously,” but there was nothing in his manner suggesting that. Every indication is that he simply said what he believed and the public reaction was hostile, causing him to backtrack as best he could.
This could have been a teaching moment in public debate, but today’s politics would not allow it. Wheeler is a Republican. Within a day of the disclosure of the Wheeler video the Nevada Democratic Party sent out at least 12 email messages notifying reporters first of the video and then of the spreading reaction in local and then national news outlets. Other Democratic bodies like the Assembly Democratic Caucus joined in. Then Republicans started piling on. No one thought to challenge the substance of what Wheeler said, or even to discuss it thoughtfully. They simple reacted to the inflammatory term “slavery.” As a result, they missed the key sentence in Wheeler’s argument: “That’s what a republic is about.”
Actually, that’s what a republic is NOT about, at least in the United States, and the U.S. system was designed to protect the public against what James Madison in the tenth Federalist paper called the “majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” By acting through representatives, the public was protected from momentary and shifting public opinion.
English conservative thinker Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament, gave the classic description of the way republican representatives should act to represent the public’s interests instead of the public’s opinions: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that in which the determination precedes the discussion, in which one set of men deliberate and another decide, and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?”
How, for that matter, can a representative even KNOW the public’s opinion on legislation? At Assm. Wheeler’s only legislative session, there were more than 1,100 measures before the Nevada Legislature. How can a tailor or dry cleaner have opinions on all of them in their original, amended, and final forms? Legislators must have something more than an amorphous public opinion on which to act.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.