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  • Representation in America:Some Thoughts on Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom, Tim Johnson, and Deliberative Engagement
  • Ethan J. Leib (bio) and David L. Ponet (bio)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously rejected representative democracy. He thought that citizens living under representative political institutions are free, at best, one day a year: Election Day. After casting their ballots, citizens are enslaved—and denuded of the very power and authority that is exercised in their names. Delegation of decision-making to representatives was seen by Rousseau and many that followed as servitude, albeit potentially voluntary servitude.

Rousseau's repudiation of political representation constitutes a major challenge to theorists and practitioners of contemporary representative democracy. Yet one can hardly conceive of democratic society and the modern democratic nation-state without representation. Not only are countries like the United States far too populous for routine direct participation, but many citizens ultimately prefer to bow out of politics and let experts and career politicians do the work of governing.

Still, for the many who wish to cleave to the notion that representative government can be vindicated as a meaningful democracy in action, Rousseau's central question remains: How can citizens reconcile democracy with representation? Surely we want some kind of relationship between the people and their representatives that amounts to more than ballot-casting followed by the voluntary assumption of shackles. What is the nature of this relationship—and can it be specified as a principle of democratic political morality? Our view is that representation is properly democratic rather than fundamentally subjugating only when representatives deliberatively engage their constituents. The duty of deliberative engagement is generally triggered merely by taking on the role of a representative. But it gains special urgency when constituents speak clearly on central matters of political concern.

This is not mere theory. In 21st century America, the centuries' old question of the relationship between the governed and the governors remains pressing. A recent [End Page 3] electoral scenario in the United States puts the question in especially salient relief. Nancy Pelosi, a senior Democrat representing the voters of San Francisco in the House of Representatives, was reelected in 2006's midterm elections. During the 2006 vote, Pelosi's constituents also overwhelmingly supported Proposition J. Proposition J "call[s] on [San Francisco's] elected federal and state representatives to immediately invoke every available legal mechanism to effect the impeachment and removal from office of President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney for High Crimes and Misdemeanors under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution of the United States of America." Owing to Pelosi's new role as Speaker of the House of Representatives, she is particularly well-situated to heed the calls of the constituents who elected her into office. Must she listen to these people?

There are a number of Pelosi-specific complications that make this case an especially difficult one to use as the basis for the inquiry we pursue here. First, Pelosi publicly pledged during her reelection campaign that if elected and elevated to Speaker of the House, she would keep impeachment "off the table." This means that it may be possible to impute to her constituents a preference for having her reelected over a preference for impeachment (though this is by no means the only way to render coherent San Francisco voters' preferences). Second, Pelosi—as Speaker of the House—would be next in line for the presidency if Bush and Cheney were impeached; she may, accordingly, be "conflicted off " any call for impeachment. These rationales may ultimately immunize her from any obligation to heed her constituents' preferences on this matter in particular. But the puzzle presented by this scenario has much broader application.

The recent Pelosi episode is but one instance of the curious paradox of congressional representation: that the representative is at once elected locally and expected to orient herself nationally. All representatives—Pelosi included—are selected by their respective local districts but nevertheless represent the whole of the American people. So the representative must engage in the synchronistic activity of representing her "home" geographic district and the collective interests of all. Perhaps, then, Pelosi needn't do all she can to effect impeachment: as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 3-7
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-23
Open Access
No
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