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Letters From an Ohio Farmer

Promises and Politics

December 27, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

“The Pledge,” in most political news stories today, refers to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, promoted and monitored by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). This group, headed for the entirety of its 26-year existence by Grover Norquist, invites candidates around the country—for the U.S. House and Senate, governorships, and the state legislatures—to promise to oppose any and all tax increases by signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Only six Republicans in the House of Representatives and seven GOP senators have not signed it, compared to exactly three of the 246 elected Democrats on Capitol Hill who have. When ATR believes that a pledge-signer has supported a tax increase, or is about to, it is not bashful about reminding the politician and his electors about the broken promise.

When the “super committee” of six Democratic and six Republican members of Congress recently failed to reach a “grand bargain” on reducing the federal government’s borrowing, many Democrats blamed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Without it, the argument went, those Republicans who were willing to raise taxes if it meant cutting spending could have worked out a deal with those Democrats who were willing to cut spending in order to raise taxes. Because no Republicans chose to violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge all such deals became impossible. As Senator John Kerry (D – Mass.), one of the super committee members, complained, “Grover Norquist has been the 13th member of this committee without being there. I can’t tell you how many times we hear about ‘the pledge, the pledge.’ Well all of us took a pledge to uphold the Constitution and to full and faithfully and well-execute our duties and I think that requires us to try and reach an agreement. So we have to compromise.”

One critic of the Pledge attacked it by invoking Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman and modern American conservative hero. His famous speech in 1774 laid out the nature and the limits of an elected politician’s obligations to those who elect him. “It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own,” Burke argued. “But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living…. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Therefore, according to Burke, it was pernicious for voters to issue “authoritative instructions”and “mandates” to their elected officials, in the expectation that the politicians would be “bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience.” The dots aren’t hard to connect: Any Republican politician who takes and honors the Taxpayer Protection Pledge is blindly obeying voters’ instructions rather than following his own judgment and conscience.

To use Edmund Burke against Grover Norquist in this way is an example of an argument that, as they say in the law schools, proves too much. It is certainly true that the idea of “representative”government should not be understood in a fanatically literal way. We don’t “present” our opinions to our elected officials, and then insist they do no more than “re-present” them in the halls of government.

It doesn’t follow from that premise, however, that correctly calibrating governors’ democratic accountability to the governed means that citizens have no questions to ask of political candidates beyond whether they have good heads and hearts. It would be one thing if the Taxpayer Protection Pledge were a category unto itself, the only promise American politicians made to the voters. But, of course, lots of politicians make lots of promises about what they’ll enact and oppose, perpetuate and eliminate. As a presidential candidate, for example, Barack Obama promised frequently and forcefully to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility by the end of his first year in the White House. Arguments over that promise extend to whether such a closing would be advisable or dangerous, and whether President Obama should have done more to fulfill it. No one, however, took the position that a presidential candidate had no business telling the voters his intentions about an important policy question, and should have confined himself to saying that he would consider the future of Guantanamo carefully but owed it to the voters not to tip his hand.

We do nothing to gainsay Edmund Burke’s greatness by noting that his political career unfolded when aristocracy was only beginning to yield to the advance of democracy. It is not surprising that he viewed democratic accountability in the context of aristocratic premises. The best should rule, as before, but with the new twist that the rulers were periodically answerable to the people rather than allowed to perpetuate their power on the basis of ancient traditions or unfalsifiable justifications like “divine right.” During that era when the new claims of democracy were being slowly, reluctantly conceded, many believed that for rulers to descend to making specific promises they were expected to keep, or for voters to make equally specific demands, would have been vulgar and the beginning of a descent into mob rule.

The assumptions of that age are not the assumptions of this one. America has now had 183 years of vigorous, unapologetic democratic politics since Andrew Jackson’s successful presidential campaign of 1828. The politicians who ask to govern us by our consent, expressed through our votes, can no longer expect to close the sale by offering their eminence and good judgment, with the policy details to be filled in after the votes are counted. Voters aren’t shy about demanding specifics from politicians; the prospective office-seekers who considered such questions an affront have all gone into other lines of work. No candidate is obligated to take the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, as no voter is obligated to consider whether a candidate has signed, spurned, or even broken it. Given those undiminished possibilities for free democratic expression, there is no reason why one promise on one issue should be singled out as a threat to popular government… unless all promises on all issues are.

Ohio Farmer