Thursday, February 18, 2010

What Representation Means: Why Jonathan Chait Is Wrong to Savage Harold Ford Jr

It's hard to figure out what it is about Harold Ford Jr that is so polarizing.  People seem to either love him or hate him.  Count Jonathan Chait of the New Republic as one of the haters.  In this article he savages Ford's character.  His chief complaint is that Ford does not have any principles.  But Chait's analysis is not only gratuitously uncharitable, it is also based upon an assumption about representation that, as Luis has shown in a prior post, is contestable.  Because smart people keep screwing this up, it's worth revisiting.
Chait's chief argument against Ford is contained in the following paragraph:
Having lost a 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, Ford is now all but officially running in New York. His efforts to date offer a fascinating character study. All politicians, to varying degrees, have pliable beliefs that must bend and twist to mesh with political surroundings that change over time. Ford’s distinguishing trait is that his principles are not merely pliable but completely liquid--they have no form of their own, taking the shape of whatever surrounds them.
Put in its strongest form, Chait's problem is that Ford is a representative-for-hire: he will support the views of whomever in exchange for political power and lucre.  Indeed, not only will Ford Jr adopt any position for political and financial gain, he is predestined to do so either by biology or cultural training.  Chait writes:
Ford comes from a family that seems to regard politics as a lucrative profession. His father, a longtime member of Congress, was indicted (but acquitted) of bank fraud. One uncle was indicted for corruption, and another was convicted of insurance fraud. Harold Jr., groomed at elite institutions like St. Albans in Washington, always trod a more respectable path. After inheriting his father’s House seat in 1996, Ford cultivated a centrist profile to keep himself viable for statewide (or national) office. He endorsed constitutional amendments requiring an annual balanced budget, outlawing gay marriage and flag burning, and permitting organized classroom prayer in public schools. Shrewdly claiming a seat on the capital markets subcommittee of the Financial Services Committee, he raised copious sums from Wall Street executives, who, in turn, he favored by endorsing tax breaks for capital gains. Ford attracted a series of mostly favorable profiles in the national press, highlighting his charisma and centrist stands as a model for a new generation of Democrats. “Rigid ideology makes it easier to resist good ideas,” he declared. 
Pray tell, what is the purpose of bringing Ford Jr.'s father or uncles into this discussion except to imply that Ford Jr., is congenitally incapable of principled political positions (and to take a gratuitous swipe at Ford Jr.,). So, Chait argues, not only is this a man incapable of being principled, he is congenitally so.

What is the evidence of this congenital defect?   Well Ford used to believe one thing when he was running for federal office in Tennessee, but he now believes something else now that he is running for federal office in New York.  Chait writes:
Ford now embraces gun control and gay marriage, the latter of which, until recently, he wanted to ban via constitutional amendment. After calling for sealing the border and attacking President Bush from the right on immigration in 2006, he now takes a liberal stance. What about the border fence he favored? “Even if we had a fence now, we are not going to stop it,” he told The New York Times, not explaining why he had supported such a futile gesture in the first place.
The reason why he changed his views are quite simple: the people in Tennessee on average were pro-gun rights, anti-gay rights, anti-immigration than the people of New York.  What's wrong with Ford Jr.'s change of views to better fit the people that he wants to represent?  Suppose that Ford Jr., were to say, when I represented the people of Tennessee I adopted their views to better represent them.  Now that I seek to represent the people of New York, I will adopt their views. Indeed, it would be a failure of representation if Ford Jr., did not hew his beliefs to that of his electorate.

Chait's criticism of Ford Jr., is premised upon a specific view of representation.  The assumption that Chait makes is that the representative (or would be representative) ought to stand for something.  By that Chait means that the representative ought to have principles that are independently his or her own, not malleable to the wishes of the representative's electorate. That view is one way to understand representation in democratic theory.  But it is not the only way.

In the traditional understanding of the principal-agent model of representation the agent (the representative) is committed strictly to the views of the principal.  The purpose of the agent, the views of the agent, the aims of the agent, are determined by the principal.  It is not a valid criticism of the agent to say that the agent believes as the principal believes.  Moreover, when the agent becomes employed by a different principal, one expects that the agent will pursue the aims, purposes, views of that subsequent principal and not that of the prior principal.  Suppose that a lawyer is employed at Time One by a pro-environmental group.  Suppose that the same lawyer is later employed at Time Two by an anti-environmental group.  How sensible is it to criticize the lawyer for pursuing outcomes at Time Two that he opposed at Time One.

This is why Chait's criticism of Ford Jr., is inapposite.  Chait presents his view of representation as if it were the only view.  Now there is nothing wrong with seeking representatives who are "true believers."  That's one view of representation; but it not the only view.

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