Tomorrow is the next round in democracy’s struggle.  Listening to all the pundits and pollsters, wall-to-wall, it seems foregone that Democrats will lose the House majority and possibly the Senate as well.  At the very least, any thought of major legislation–possibly even minor legislation–initiated by President Obama, must be forsaken.  On the other hand, the perennial Republican effort to privatize Social Security, or for that matter destroy the new health care legislation, will face a presidential veto.  At the very least, the 2012 presidential campaign and the effort to drive President Obama from office will start November the 3ed.
 
More sophisticated political analysts than I (and here I do not include the self-described 23 year old, cable infested, political “strategists”) will reach their own conclusions as to what this all means, especially when it is almost axiomatic that opposition parties gain in off-year elections.
 
The historic question this election raises is this: outside the minimum requirements of the Constitution are there standards of intelligence, knowledge, and mental agility we should expect of our elected officials.  A more crude way of asking this question is: Is ignorance an attribute? 
 
Though relatively young when first elected, I had government and political experience, a law degree, and considerable study of the Constitution.  I didn’t know enough economics, so when considering a candidacy I sought out business and academic economists because I thought I should have at least a minimal understanding of fiscal and monetary policy.  Perhaps today’s crop of candidates are taking the responsibilities of national policy making seriously, but if so it is not apparent. 
 
Instead, a number of candidates for the House and Senate seem to pride themselves on what they do not know.  And a considerable number of voters seem to favor willfully ignorant candidates, as if knowing something is a barrier to service.  It is one thing to mistake ignorance for an attribute.  It is even worse to reward those who actively resent learning, science, intelligence, and education.
 
(I confess to having served in the good old days of better government with one, and only one, Senator whose motto was: not very intelligent people need their representative too.)
 
All those who genuinely love and care for their country and who take the duties and burdens of citizenship seriously must hope this willful ignorance fad will quickly pass, as it has in previous troubled times.  If so, we will quickly return to a more normal time when elected representatives are held to higher standards of thoughtfulness.  This does not mean high IQ.  This means open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, and eagerness to learn and not just spout slogans and talking points.  If not, then we are in for a troubled time for our nation.
 
Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms, Lilliputions, and Yahoos come to mind.  They all represented the anti-Enlightenment thinking of his time.

8 Responses to “The Responsibility of Representation”

  1. Neal Taslitz, Esq. Says:

    Once again, you have warned us of the looming disaster on the horizon.

    I thank you and encourage all who read your words to pass it on to their friends, relatives and colleagues prior to tomorrow’s elections. We need to make certain your words are heard by those who would be fooled by ignorance, and deception or we will have forfeited our future to those who seek to bring us down the road of fear and anger.

    We also need to make sure those who understand the seriousness of this election vote tomorrow, as intelligence calls for being responsible and taking the time to vote. Heaven knows we waste too much of our time on matters that have little impact on our future and our children’s future.

    Sincerely,
    Neal Taslitz

  2. Nancy Lee Says:

    Alas, I agree with you about the caliber of many of the candidates who are projected to win. Our president was never able to get out his message with all the shouting and whining. Both the right and the left piled on him from day one.
    Now we will have to endure the privatizers with all their money and power who will innundate us with more of their TV ads and emails.

    I recall the optimism when Barack Obama walked out in Grant Park in Chicago on that balmy November night. How fast it all faded……….

  3. Gill Winograd Says:

    Mr Hart,

    I’m afraid that citing ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ indicates how greatly you underestimate the problem you set out to describe. I will eat a printout of this note if in a random sample of candidates for office one in a hundred could recognize that quote, name the author or explain the terms. Of the voters, not one in a thousand. We live in a culture of profound ignorance and that cannot change for a generation if not several generations and only then if our culture changes radically. In a conservative, center-right country like ours, this is improbable. Why would you expect a public that no longer reads serious works and expects entertainment in all things to value knowledge and elect educated people to office? How could they?

    It may be obvious to you and me that Harry Reid is a knowledgeable person fit for high office and that Sharon Engel is not, but we read and write. Most of the voters can’t and they don’t see that difference at all. They see two people on their TV like Letterman and Leno and they’re going decide which one they like better and would rather watch. For them, whether it’s Fox News or PBS, TV is their only world.

  4. Judith Rose Says:

    Thanks for your insightful comments. I’ve often wondered myself why there wasn’t some type of “desired characteristics” or “rules of conduct” for congressional office, since humans today don’t seem to remember or understand civility, manners, etiquette, etc. And they should at least know the Constitution.

    I shudder, thinking about the results of today’s election. I’m in Wisconsin and find it difficult to understand how people could select Ron Johnson over Russ Feingold. The man did not understand how Congress works, would not be definitive on what he stood for — it’s baffling.

    But you are right — “this, too, shall pass”

  5. Gill Winograd Says:

    Sorry for the typo in the previous post. Should be Sharron Angle.

  6. Neil McCarthy Says:

    One of your best. The anti-intellectualism is, unfortunately, a product of our decades long culture wars. Nixon’s Vice President Agnew — with his boss’s unvarnished support — made a point of attacking “pointy headed intellectuals” as elitists who did not understand the values of the silent majority, and there is a direct line that can be traced from that to Sarah Palin’s “real Americans.” Thus, making your hardscrabble way from a modest background to the Ivy League is no longer a sign of accomplishment and a resource tapped by our political culture. Rather, it becomes a disqualifying sign of elitist contempt. Too bad. Now more than ever we need the power of new ideas and should not be throwing away the very people who often come up with them.

  7. Gary Hart Says:

    For Gill Winograd, I can only quote T. Jefferson to the affect that we must trust to the good judgment and common sense of the American people if the Republic is to survive. And Neil McCarthy is right: the systematic dumbing-down of the electorate began as a Nixonian reaction to the perceived intellectualism of the Kennedy years. Our trust and hope must be in an eventual pendelum swing back to an era where thoughtfulness is rewarded and willful ignorance is penalized.

  8. WIlliam Colbert Says:

    We don’t need polls or elections to find out what people want. We just need to add up how much of what people spend their money on over the public. the tools to do this are available, and can be used to quantify the value that people place even on things that are not traded in markets. The total number in every jurisdiction could be used to create an incentive system for legislators as high powered as the systems used in private sector corporations. The processes used are called, broadly, demand revealing processes, and can also be used to allow people to “put their money where their mouths are” on controversial issues. With a cooperative in every legislative district, legislators could be highly motivated to make their constituents better off. See http://www.era2000.net for some of the immense magnitudes that are involved.

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