Andrea Batista Schlesinger
The will of the people?
There's lots of talk about the will of the people these days, as everyone debates the legality, and the wisdom, of the New York City Council voting to extend term limits to three terms.
Will the "will of the people" on term limits be respected, it is asked? Will the "will of the people" in electing the members of the City Council to decide matters of city policy be respected? Whichever way you slice and dice it, in invoking the will of the people, we are missing the obvious:
The will of the people is rarely the driving force behind policy-making.
Most American rejected a bail-out for Wall Street, perhaps realizing faster than Hank Paulson that medicine that addresses only symptoms does not cure the illness. Most Americans want an Employee Free Choice Act that makes it easier for workers to join unions (sorry George McGovern and p.s. what?) Most Americans support expanding SCHIP so that more children are guaranteed health insurance. Most Americans want a universal solution to health care. Most Americans want guaranteed family leave insurance. Most want bankruptcy judges to be able to renegotiate the terms of mortgages so that people can stay in their homes.
So if the "will of the people" were driving our policies, perhaps these proposals would be reality (or, in the case of the bail-out/rescue/fiscal hail mary, not?)
That's a hard equation to believe in, since most Americans have absolutely no idea how their representatives actually vote on the issues of concern to them. In the same numbers that our respondents supported these policies, they had absolutely no idea how their members actually voted. The business of our policymaking, and the business of our politics, have grown dangerously far apart.
I'm not arguing that, therefore, it doesn't matter what the City Council does with term limits. My point is that "the will of the people" is a concept that has lost a lot of its romance. The will of the people doesn't always drive their votes in the electoral arena, and their representatives repay the favor by not considering the will of the people in their own voting.
Much of the work is figuring out when the will of the people should be respected, and when the will of the people needs to be shaped. These are the questions that I struggle with, anyways, as the head of a progressive think tank that tries to influence the way people see the role of government and the issues that matter to them. Anyone who claims special knowledge on what the will of the people means should please let me know the formula.