A candidate without strong party ties, elected through a popular mobilization that may prove fleeting, has little choice but to attend closely to public opinion. He has no other base of support. The consequence is a shift from strategy to tactics, from future-oriented policies to the daily news cycle, from the politics of consensus-building to a “war room” approach.
Reflecting on these developments in 2000, political scientist Hugh Heclo asked the crucial question: Why should we care? His astute answer: “Because our politics will become more hostile than needed, more foolhardy in disregarding the long-term, and more benighted in mistaking persuasions for reality.” Sadly, seven congresses and two presidential administrations have done little to disprove his prediction.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, I offer a Madisonian reflection: There is a difference between the vagaries of public opinion and the long-term interests of the people, and it is the task of representative democracy to reflect that difference. Pursuing the people’s long-term interests may sometimes require elected officials to disregard the kinds of preferences that the people reveal in public-opinion surveys or even in elections. Changes in the political system that make it more difficult for elected officials to give adequate weight to the long-term are changes for the worse, however “democratic” they may appear.
As Madison insisted, we will wait in vain for public-spiritedness to become a pervasive motive in our politics. Instead, we must create—and if necessary re-create—institutions that channel human nature as it is toward promoting the permanent interests of the community. If representative institutions move too far in the direction of government by plebiscite, we need an era of institutional reform to renew them.