February 12th, 2010

Constitution, Conscience, Constituency


photo credit: Keven

Elected leaders in our republican representative system face a quandary when considering how they will vote on an issue. Many of them are unfortunately unaware of (or intentionally ignore) the standard by which their votes are to be cast, and thus proceed in blatant disregard for the proper process of deciding upon an issue. This process entails three influencing factors whose order is important: the Constitution, one’s own conscience, and the constituency being represented by the office held.

Most politicians disregard the first and the last, voting only according to their conscience (or lack thereof). This type of person might, if they’re savvy enough to use the argument, justify their actions by pointing to the representative system itself—the voters placed this person in office because of his/her stance on the issues, and thus that stance can confidently be implemented once the office is obtained.

While true in part, relying only upon this method of input is arrogant, if not flat out wrong. Elected officials who make an oath upon assuming office to support and defend the Constitution owe their allegiance to this document, first and foremost. If one’s “conscience” dictates a desire to implement an individual health care insurance mandate at the federal level, for example, then that (un-constitutional) desire must be subjected to the Constitution before pursuing any related legislation.

If and when one’s desired policy or program passes constitutional muster, then it is proper for a legislator to consider his or her own conscience. After all, it is a representative system, and if that person was voted into office, it is because a majority of the voting constituents liked his/her platform and entrusted him/her with that office. As such, it is unnecessary (if not improper) for a legislator to constantly focus upon or worry about the feelings of his/her constituents in regard to an issue. This is not a democracy, and the constituents are not supposed to be deciding upon each issue. Conducting or paying attention to polls shows a concern more for re-election than for principled action.

That being said, there are times in which a legislator is indifferent or ignorant about an issue, or perhaps has an incorrect stance that can be corrected through feedback from informed and engaged constituents. At times, then, it becomes necessary to seek counsel from key advisors, or better yet, one’s constituency, in order to determine how a certain vote should be cast. Of course, only the more vocal and active constituents will likely make their voices heard when a request is made, opening up an imbalance in the response being observed by the legislator. Whatever the response is, a true representative will seek at all times to represent his/her constituents, and if circumstances drastically change public opinion on an issue, the legislator can either ignore the constituency and vote his/her conscience (or lack thereof), or subject him/herself to removal in the next election cycle. Either way, the constituents will ultimately determine who their representative will be.

The widespread dissatisfaction that the majority of Americans have with their elected officials can be largely attributed to the imbalance of these factors. Their proper prioritization—most importantly, placing the Constitution before one’s own political desires—would solve a large number of problems in Congress and restore a decent amount of respect in the way our representatives conduct their business.

25 Responses to “Constitution, Conscience, Constituency”

  1. David
    February 12, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    The hard thing about this perspective for candidates is that a majority of constituents believe that this is a democracy and that Constituents come first, this can be found among those who would put the Constitution before conscience and those who would put conscience before the Constitution.

    in other words, it’s hard to get elected when you say you would put the Constitution even before the wishes of constituents.

  2. February 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    If the constituents don’t understand how sticking to the constitution (including the Bill of Rights) benefits them, the candidate can explain the benefits. How lower federal taxes gives them the freedom to fund public education locally with more responsive local leaders. Or how lower payroll taxes increases their effective salaries, giving them more money in their pockets and increasing the number of people their employer can hire.

    Few politicians live up to this standard, and many put special interests which don’t necessarily align with their constituents first. As long as the candidate makes sure to state the benefits of supporting the rule-of-law and community standards for all constituents in contrast to approaches that disregard their constituents, they should be able to win over a majority of voters because of reliable principles.

  3. David
    February 12, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    I think other involved and informed voters must help the candidates to spread that message. The candidate alone cannot educate a majority of voters.

  4. February 14, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    First of all, it seems that the use of the Constitution here refers to a specific interpretation of the document and the idea that that interpretation is more important than the needs of the American people. The Constitution was and is and means to an end, not the end itself. It was the best effort of some great men to provide a framework that would enable the new country to enjoy the benefits outlined in the Preamble while preventing government from usurping certain individual rights they considered essential to liberty. At this juncture it is clear that the framework they developed 220 years ago is no longer either enabling the benefits they envisioned nor protecting the rights of individuals.

    While we can blame individual politicians for that and try to replace them, that will not fix the problem. We have a dysfunctional, undemocratic system in which the representatives are chosen from among a short list devised by the malefactors of great wealth and who spend their time in office fulfilling their obligations to those who paid the marketing and PR costs that sold their brand to the voters. The entire government is rigged so that no substantive change can occur in our laws except that desired by corporations. Every regulatory agency is controlled by the industries it was designed to regulate. Both political parties are run by the same corporate interests and their differences are more in market segmentation than philosophy.

    The Constitution is outdated and the system it devised has been bought by corporate interests. Working within that system and requiring fealty to that Constitution will only continue the dysfunctional game being played in Washington.

  5. February 14, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    Charles, that assumes that anything the Federal Government is doing is Constitutional anymore, including being in bed with corporations. That’s like blaming Capitalism for the problems that have been caused by regulating Capitalism. We haven’t used the Constitution correctly for centuries, so blaming the failures that have happened as a result of going away from Constitutionality on the Constitution is pure scapegoating.

  6. Jeffrey T
    February 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    Charles,

    If our elected leaders were to honor the Constitution, few of the problems you reference would exist. Your complaints are a result of violations of the Constitution, not loyalty to it.

  7. February 15, 2010 at 7:51 am #

    If we haven’t used the Constitution correctly for centuries, then that’s a pretty good indication that it is no longer adequate. If we can’t get our representatives to adhere to the Constitution then it’s time to make a change in the document. The very, very few national politicians who call for a return to strict interpretation of the Constitution seem to do so out of a desire to suppress democracy, not to increase it. They are looking for reasons why the government should not do things a majority of Americans want it to do. That’s simply not a winnable argument.

    I think we need to go the other direction. If the government is not responsive to the desires and needs of the majority, then we need to increase democracy not use the Constitution as a weapon to suppress democracy.

  8. Jeffrey T
    February 15, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Charles,

    Democracy is bad. Democracy is the tyranny of the majority. The majority voice needs to be restrained by law, and that is what the Constitution is designed to do.

    As a nation, we’ve become a bunch of democracy worshippers. We value majority opinion over the rights of the minority, and over the rule of law. That is wrong.

  9. February 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    Right Jeffrey, we should all celebrate that government of the people, by the people and for the people has perished from the earth.

  10. Jeffrey T
    February 15, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    Interesting, Charles, that the Preamble you cite was the preface to a document that was designed as a restriction on the voice of the people. Strange eh?

  11. February 15, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

    Jeffrey the Constitution was designed as a restriction on government, not a restriction on the people. Yes, the Founder’s great principles applied only to white male property owners at the time, but we have amended the Constitution to include everyone over the years. The great fear was that the government would usurp the rights of the people, not that the people would control the government.

  12. Jeffrey T
    February 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm #

    The Constitution was designed to allow the people to enact legislation for a specified, restricted jurisdiction. As long as the document is unchanged, for example, the people (through their representatives) cannot legally enact laws that curtail freedom of speech, or that establish programs not listed in the enumerated powers of congress.

    So yes, the Constitution narrows the scope in which the voice of the people may act, as per the federal government.

    Was it not you who said that we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people? And now you say that the people and the government are two separate things. Let’s be consistent here.

  13. February 16, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    Charles, If we haven’t used the Constitution correctly for centuries, then that’s a pretty good indication that it is no longer adequate. If we can’t get our representatives to adhere to the Constitution then it’s time to make a change in the document.

    No. It’s time to make a change in our representatives. We haven’t used the Constitution because it’s point is to curtail corruption and governmental crime, and we have allowed corruption in, and your remedy is to allow corruption to take over entirely because the people want it to be legal for them to do whatever they want at the expense of other people, as long as they can call it legal through corrupt unconstitutional legislation. How is that for the people when it’s only for some and against others? That’s class warfare, not equality. Equal opportunity, not equal results, is all that can be allowed or government is nothing more than institutionalized crime. The Constitution had it right, and we need to go back to that protectionist system.

  14. February 16, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    No concerned mommy, my remedy is not to let corruption in, but to rewrite the Constitution so that it reflects the needs and realities of 21st century democracy. We have had class warfare for most of our national existence – the wealthy class has waged war on the working class during almost all the last 130 years. They have indeed made it legal for corporations to do whatever they want at the expense of citizens, and we have the allegedly conservative Supreme Court making that absolutely clear and Constitutional. The class war is now over, and we lost.

    The Constitution was a means to an end – “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” We have been unable for decades to elect representatives that can carry out those ends because the structure through which they are obliged to operate is no longer functional. Electing different representatives who believed in your understanding of the Constitution (even if that were possible) would only play into the hands of the same groups that have destroyed the republic.

  15. February 16, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    Charles,
    So how would you write it, and what would be the solution you present, other than merely discarding the Constitution and hoping that totalitarianism doesn’t ensue? What would be in your new Constitution that would better reflect the whims of the dirty democracy, and why would that be a good thing?

    The Constitution was built upon an understanding of human nature and natural law, so it has in no way become outmoded because humans still work the same way we always did, and nature still works as nature always will. The Progressive Superman never came to fruition, did he? We got only elitist superegos from them. Humans are good and bad all at once and only a system that exemplifies and rewards the good and keeps the bad under a system of checks and consequences can succeed in securing safety and freedom for the people.

    I dare say your Constitution would end up having to look a heck of a lot like the original document in order for it to do any good for humanity, since the natural inclination of those in power is to abuse said power and the people they usurped it from.

  16. Jeffrey T
    February 16, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    Charles, quit quoting the preface and start quoting the document itself.

    What is it about the Constitution, as it stands today, that you believe proliferates corruption?

  17. February 16, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    The only thing that can prevent politicians from being corrupt is accountability. A government in which the corruption comes from the corporations and the large financial institutions and which permits those same institutions to fund elections and endlessly lobby the legislative branch is never going to provide accountability.

    What will work is real democracy. An informed populace, a level playing field (elections without private money), and a clear and transparent legislative process in which each citizen has the same representation could provide the kind of accountability our current system cannot.

    I admit that a constitutional convention at this juncture would be a disaster. It would be dominated by the same special interests who dominate our government and are largely responsible for its dysfunction. It is as likely to happen and as likely to be successful as a reversion to a libertarian view of the Constitution as the curb on excess and corruption.

  18. Jeffrey T
    February 16, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    Charles,

    Does not the U.S. Constitution forbid the Federal government from enacting legislation for purely corporate interests? The general welfare clause specifically states that tax funds are to be used for the general welfare of the U.S. (in contrast to the specific welfare of an individual, community, or business). So the Constitution forbids what you are talking about, does it not?

    Therefore, if we were to return to the interpretation of the Constitution that I hold, such corruption would end.

  19. February 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Republicans have made a case for hundreds of years that helping corporations is in the interest of the general welfare of the U.S. So have they been advocating unconstitutional actions all this time?

  20. Jeffrey T
    February 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    In my mind, yes.

  21. Jeffrey T
    February 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    The Federal government’s only authorized job in the marketplace is to ensure uniform (to regulate, or “make regular”) interstate commerce… that is, to strike down state laws that interfere with interstate commerce. Passing legislation to build large businesses, or to favor one business over another, is part of my definition of fascism (when business runs government), and in violation of the written text of the Constitution.

  22. David
    February 17, 2010 at 8:21 am #

    Charles,

    You said that:

    What will work is real democracy. An informed populace, a level playing field (elections without private money), and a clear and transparent legislative process in which each citizen has the same representation could provide the kind of accountability our current system cannot.

    I agree that an informed populace, a level playing field, and a clear and transparent legislative process in which each citizen has the same representation could provide the kind of accountability our current system does not. On the other hand I do not believe that elections without private money will necessarily make for a more level playing field.

    Having said that, could you please explain how altering the Constitution – rewriting the Constitution so that it reflects the needs and realities of 21st century democracy – would actually create an informed populace or guarantee a transparent legislative process?

  23. February 17, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    For one thing, we could remove undemocratic entities that obfuscate the democratic process and work against the will of the people such as the Electoral College and the Senate. Next we could mandate that all campaigns for federal office are to be funded exclusively by the government with strict rules insuring that all candidates have an equal opportunity to present their ideas and qualifications to the electorate. Then we could mandate instant-run-off voting so that voting for candidates of minor parties and independent candidates would not be “throwing away” a vote or insuring the election of another.

    We could declare that corporations are not citizens and cannot use their money directly or indirectly to attempt to influence elections or legislation. We could mandate that every citizen has a right to vote and that any interference with that right is punishable by law.

    We could mandate that the single remaining legislative body eschew any rule that permitted a single member or a small group of members from blocking legislation, and that prohibited a super-majority requirement for anything other than impeachment.

    If we want an informed populace, we need to mandate strong publicly-financed education from K – College so that everyone that is qualified and motivated can get as much education as they want without fear of a huge debt burden. We also would need to break up the media oligopolies and impose strict rules on ownership across all types of media and strict standards of operation in the public interest.

  24. March 14, 2010 at 11:31 pm #

    Conner,
    It has been quite some time since I posted any comments but thought it fitting after this article to mention that Sheriff Richard Mack is coming to Montrose, Colorado on March 19, 2010. If you want to know anything about our Republic and the Constitution I hope it can be posted somewhere about this event. Richard Mack won his case in the U.S. Supreme Court against the Brady Bill. Montrose is 6 hrs. from Salt Lake City via Price, Utah catching I-70 at Green River and heading to Grand Junction, Colorado. This event is at 7 p.m. on Friday March 19th. If there is a better place for this announcement to go could you put it there for me? Barbara Hulet

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