More partisanship means less leadership

Since summer is upon us it’s only appropriate that Texas’ GOP U.S. Senate race is heating up. Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst are dominating the airwaves trying to out-Republican one another. Each of the two top contenders is trotting out his own conservative roots and trying to show his opponent as less conservative. This is a typical strategy in primaries—run to your party’s extreme to get the nomination, then run back to the center in the general.

But, in Texas, where the Republican nominee is expected to win the Senate seat against whoever the Democrats put up, the question remains whether it even matters who wins the GOP nomination.

As political scientist Keith Poole has pointed out, and as most media coverage has observed, party-line voting in the Senate is on the rise. Party discipline, with a few exceptions, is how the Senate is now run. It only stands to reason that Cruz or Dewhurst will do the same. Both proclaim to be staunch Republicans so it is even more certain that they will vote with their party if elected to the Senate. In other words, Cruz and Dewhurst are interchangeable. If voters want a Republican who will vote the Republican way, they can’t go wrong with either candidate.


The trend of a more partisan Senate is reflective of the perceived polarization in the country at large. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are two methods of representation: trustee and delegate. Trustee representation occurs when someone is voted into office and the representative does not govern by opinion polls or with the preference of her constituency, but with their own assessment of what is best for her constituents. This type of representation gets its greatest defense from Edmund Burke, a late-eighteenth century philosopher and statesman. But like Burke, trustees don’t last that long in office if their views contrast with their constituents’. In Burke’s words, “If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong.” It wasn’t that his policy choices were bad, but he didn’t bow to the whims of the majority—he did what he thought was right. Trustee representation harkens back to the idea of statesmanship. Statesmen lead and provide direction; delegates do what they are told.

Delegate representation is what we commonly get in the U.S. Politicians promise to serve their constituents and give them what they want. Rather than float new ideas they recycle talking points drawn from the party platform. This type of campaigning is easier for voters to digest but it makes it difficult to know much about the candidate and what he will do if a new issue becomes important. Delegate representation is closer to democratic rule than trustee which makes it desirable along a number of dimensions. This was the goal of the 17th Amendment which amended the constitution to make Senators directly elected by the people rather than state legislatures.

The question that remains is whether more democracy is what we want, or whether there is some benefit to a republican—not the party—form of government that we have lost.

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