Political Conscience in the World’s Greatest Democracy

us election vote

 The mid-term election dust has settled here in the United States, so it’s a good time to look into a familiar bit of political reportage involving our two “official” parties.

The vote went along party lines. The vote went along party lines. The vote went along party lines.

You know you hear it all the time. Its repetitive nature suggests something fundamental at work, begging the question, who do our political representatives strictly represent?

Sure, anyone who has ever cracked open a civics textbook could supply the answer. Why, the people, of course. They’re public servants. On a technical point, there could be some basis for this. They are on the public dole, and people pay taxes. So people pay their salaries. But, you see, this is a very technical point.

Take any hypothetical candidate. In order to stand out in a political campaign, they must distinguish themself personally. If they can convince voters that they are better suited to make the right choices than the opponents, a point will have been won. It’s not everything, but voters do see politicians choosing sides of issues by how they vote.

They were seen as smarter, better informed, more composed, more forthright, it doesn’t matter. Could be anything. What mattered is that they were preferred by voters to make the choices for them, the basis of individual representation.

Up to this point, they took the full burden of this upon themself. They are really saying, I can do for you what others can’t do because of the individual attributes that belong to me, and only me.

Every now and then, politicians are asked if they would vote their own conscience. They might prefer not to be pressed too hard on this particular item, and, fortunately for them, they’re usually not. But they’re always prepared with the correct answer. Of course I will. I will never go against my conscience.

How seriously should we take this? There is a way to judge. Let’s take a set of 100 comprised of 50 red and 50 blue each asked to consider a 50/50 proposition. Without a bias, the probability of three reds going the same way is ⅛, or 1 out of 8, derived by the multiplication sequence, ½ x ½ x ½. Stretched out to all 50 going the same way, the denominator becomes 250, or 2 raised to the 50th power, a huge number, making the odds about 1,125 trillion to 1 against.

Same with the blue, so 1,125 trillion to 1 there also. This is not completely fair, with politicians, because there is an inherent bias present in the red/blue makeup. They were free to choose color. They’re also free to say they vote their conscience but with near unanimity the reds match and the blues match. The numbers don’t leave much room for conscience to be a factor, so it can be safely ignored.

What can be safely inferred is that politicians are good at their job. They work for the party. That’s foremost. Next are the campaign contributors they represent. That’s second. And then comes the voters at large, who sometimes get what they want, but only incidentally. Ambition, through the fulfillment of a political career, and not conscience, accounts for what is observable.

Some reflection about political afterlife bears on this countdown. As the papier-mâché separating capital and the public, upon which side is the impression taken? After leaving office, willingly or unwillingly, upon which side can the politician rely for continued good fortune?

Without fail, politicians keep up the pretense that they are working for the ordinary person. This is against evidence, instinct, and common sense. It’s easy to understand why they choose this bit of exploitive flattery. What other device would work? What’s harder to accept is that some are so grateful to be flattered. Blessed are the meek.

James Rothenberg writes on U.S. social and foreign policy. He can be reached at [email protected] 





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