Monday, December 17, 2018

Elected Representatives in a Republic: Is Any Sense of Duty Remaining?

I suspect the notion of duty had by 2018 taken a rear seat, pushed out by self-centered ambition, in many if not most democracies in the world. In the ancient world, office-holding by lot stemmed the impact of people desiring office. Of the latter, the desire for personal gain would, I submit, be more likely. In contrast, finding oneself holding an office by lot was more likely to be accompanied by a sense of duty rather than personal ambition. Of course, ordinary citizens could find themselves voting in councils or legislatures—but would that necessarily be so bad?
In the American experiment, office-holding was originally thought of as a civic duty of the wealthy class. Landless citizens were cut off from even voting. George Washington did his duty as the first U.S. president, then went home to Virginia; he had done his duty (and then some). Once he decided not to run again, he did not, while still president, call it quits even if he was personally done with the office. I submit that that sense of duty had been lost by the twenty-first century.
After the 2018 midterm Congressional election, many U.S. House representatives who would retired or were not re-elected conveniently decided that their term would end early. “Call it the revenge of the lame ducks. Many lawmakers, relegated to cubicles as incoming members take their offices, have been skipping votes in the weeks since House Republicans were swept from power in the midterm elections, and Republican leaders are unsure whether they will ever return.”[1] The skipping of votes connotes an absence of a sense of duty; being in Congress in such cases is really about the office-holder, rather than his or her constituents or patriotism. Duty to oneself is not even a pale reflection of duty to the other two.
In the midst of the hegemony of duty to self, corruption can be expected to become a norm in the halls of a government. We could expect self-enriching schemes rather than a duty to fulfill the office. In the case of 2018, the U.S. Government was poised to shutdown, as the two major parties were in a stalemate over funding a southern-border wall. Duty to return to Washington in case one’s vote may facilitate the government remaining in operation would seem to be a relatively clear duty to which a legislator would be bound. Yet a major problem with duty, as with other moral principles, is it’s voluntary nature; legislators in eyesight of the end of their term know they can get away with staying away, whether out of being tired of politics or having a new lucrative opportunity in lobbying or business.
What is a republic, really? Surely some presence of a common good that needs to be looked after in its own right is involved. Who is tasked with this looking after? The government of a republic, no doubt. So office-holders should (i.e., in principle) be foremost oriented to putting the public good first, for no one else in a society is tasked by nature or occupation with putting the interests of the whole before those of the parts. In deciding to end a term of office early, for whatever extrinsic reason, the representatives in the U.S. House in late 2018 demonstrated that the voters had erred by electing people who were not in fact willing (or able) to look after the whole, to keep an eye primarily on the steering of the ship so it would not crash. tasked with steering and looking outward Knowing that the only sector of society tasked with looking after the entire ship and thus for any obstacles ahead is the government, those representatives acted selfishly in spite of the fact that they knew a government showdown would soon come up ahead and the government—that part of society specifically tasked with protecting the ship—could shut down. Such a mentality goes beyond selfishness to include a reckless disregard for the ship, which those representatives had doubtlessly lauded many times when doing so had been in their own interests.

[1] Julie Hirshfeld and Emily Cochrane, “A Shutdown Looms. Can the G.O.P. Get Lawmakers to Show Up to Vote?” The New York Times, December 16, 2018.