The Representative’s Paradox

You’re a freshman in a legislature, recently (miraculously) elected to represent a district with values significantly opposite to your own. A contentious culture war issue comes before you. You want to vote one way; your constituents will surely want you to vote another. It’s not even a question: your staff gets hundreds of calls per day, begging you to vote against your conscience. You’re likely to be the tie-breaking vote, or — if not the tie-breaker — an influence on your peers, seeking political cover from a moderate’s vote.

The Speaker calls your name. What do you do? Vote your conscience, or vote for your constituents? I imagine those two choices have two justifications each.

  1. Vote your conscience. It’s what you believe, and you know it’s the right thing to do.
  2. Vote your conscience. It’s what you believe, and if you don’t, you’re facing a primary challenge that has a 30% chance to unseat you.
  3. Vote your constituents. It’s not what you believe, but your constituents will destroy you, and, for whatever reason, you don’t want to lose your seat.
  4. Vote your constituents. It’s not what you believe, but you didn’t run to substitute your judgment for that of your constituents. You ran to faithfully represent their interests — even when that means betraying your conscience.

This question, apparently, is what Senator Joe Addabbo, a Queens Democrat, faced during Wednesday’s gay marriage vote. As it turns out, he was the first Democrat on the Senate rolls to vote “no.” And, if we’re to believe his recent interviews, he chose option #4, becoming a noble proxy for his constituents.

If that’s true — and not cover for the more opportunistic, tricky option #3 — I don’t think we can disagree with him. The relationship between a legislator and his constituents, and therefore his personal understanding of representative democracy, is a matter for the legislator to decide, and option #4 is frankly respectable. Senator Addabbo is a good man who does a lot of good work, and probably deserves the benefit of the doubt.  But he shouldn’t take it personally, if and when that translates into a primary challenge.


  1. You know I love ya, but I disagree, and here’s why:

    To vote his constituents’ desires when his constituents’ desires amount to the same sort of tyranny of the majority thing we’ve seen in California and Maine, and lots of other place, is not right, especially when you personally know better.

    By that same logic, if a large majority of his constituents believed women’s suffrage should be rescinded, or that interracial marriage bans should be put back into place, then voting with them on those issues would be “respectable.”

    1. Yeah, and how can he even be sure what the majority wants? All those emails and phone calls could just be a small, but vocal minority.

      In the end, the only thing the individual legislator can be sure of is that at least a plurality of his constituents wanted him to represent them based on whatever reasons they may have had. If they have a problem with how he’s doing that, they can take it up in the next elections, but until then, he should only be bound by his conscience.

  2. I basically agree with ACG’s original post. I’m not sure exactly what the situation was in NY, but I can imagine a few different scenarios, and which one actually obtained is relevant here.

    If, when running for election, Addabbo made clear that he was in favor of gay marriage (and would vote for it), then of course he can (and ought to) do that. He told the voters what he would do if elected, and, even if they don’t agree with him, they voted for him knowing that he wouldn’t do as they would wish when it comes to this issue. Changing his mind in this case can’t be (4), or he’d have said it earlier – it’s got to be (3).

    On the other hand, if he gave the impression during the election that he wasn’t a supporter of or wouldn’t vote for gay marriage, then it’s very hard to argue that he can vote for it now. If he did, then he would have gained office on false pretenses. The whole representative system is absolutely reliant on a representative’s duty to provide voters an accurate idea of what they’re choosing when they vote.

    It’s also possible that this hasn’t come up before, and his views on gay marriage had absolutely nothing to do with his election. In this case, it seems to me that, absent privileged knowledge, a politician ought to do what he/she thinks the public would wish. Take Bush after 9/11 as an example. The 2000 election had very little to do with Middle East policy or terrorism, and Bush proceeded to make all sorts of decisions that very large numbers of people didn’t care for (and which, with knowledge that Bush had then but we did not, even more regret). Was Bush merely wrong on the merits, or was he further wrong to follow his conscience on an issue that had nothing to do with his election? Would it not have been better in that instance for Bush to do his best to chart a consensus course on national security and the war on terror? Would it not be better to uphold, as a general rule, the principle that elected representatives ought not to go against the will of their constituents unless they made clear prior to their election that that was exactly what they would do?

    lanfranc – polling can get pretty sophisticated nowadays. And the situation as ACG has described it makes pretty clear that there’s not much uncertainty as to which way the public was leaning.

    The legislature seems to me to be precisely where we want to have a tyranny of the majority. The system is simply not working as it ought if it’s relying on the widespread election of representatives whose views are systematically biased in a certain direction relative to those of their constituents.

    1. I’d add to that that we want there to be a certain amount of lag built into representative systems, where fleeting panics in the public won’t cause massive policy changes. But gay marriage just doesn’t seem like a good example of this – it’s not some new issue that a bunch of people are temporarily crazy about. We’ve been going at it for a while now. I would imagine that it’s been a live issue since before this guy’s election, and the sides haven’t much changed.

  3. Steve Jeffers · ·

    We live in a representative democracy. We elect someone we think is well qualified to represent us, we have regular opportunities to replace them.

    If all a politician was for was to vote the way most people in his area would vote on a given issue today, then he could be replaced by an internet poll.

    There’s no paradox here – his job is to vote the way his judgment of the issue demands.

    1. True, and in addition, the elected politicians are not just representatives of their own constituencies, they’re also a part of a body which is entrusted with the interests of the entire state (or country). A legislature which is just a collection of people with fixed mandates from their particular local support bases would not work very well from a constitutional point of view.

  4. Part of it is that the constituents’ wishes aren’t always in their best interests.

    1. Steve Jeffers · ·

      A large part of it is that they are paradoxical – low taxes and more investment, for example.

      The definition of a lot of these hotbutton issues is that it’s one minority trying to prevent another from doing something – Mormons trying to institutionalize discrimination against homosexuals, for example. What’s the ‘will of the people’ there? There really isn’t one – the problem gay rights groups have is that the only people that care are the antis.

      Poll the American people about gay marriage, most people shrug and go ‘sure, why not?’, but you win a referendum by showing up.

      It’s very difficult to say this in a palatable way, but the problem is people thinking that they have the day-to-day control over the way their representative votes, or that you can take one issue and judge them solely on that.

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