The Will of the Voters Does not Have to be Constraining for Politicians

People invariably expect too much from those who appear to hold political power in the U.S. For instance, many on the left have expressed frustration that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have failed to deliver on many of the goals of the progressive caucus. Four years ago many Republicans felt similarly frustrated that Donald Trump failed to accomplish much of his agenda.


The reality is that Pelosi and Schumer are masterful politicians, but they are very much captive to the will of the members of their party’s caucus, and those who face the prospect of a competitive election are usually unwilling to acquiesce to support legislation that might jeopardize their ability to win their next election.


That is a feature, not a bug, of democracy. Pelosi and Schumer exercise political power daily in subtle, unnoticed ways each day, but their power to pass large, epochal legislation is constrained by the voters.


Politicians in lower offices face such constraints as well, but savvy politicians who excel at their jobs can come to see the will of the voters not as a constraint as a tool. I have seen it done before.


I grew up in an unincorporated community of 7,000 people in downstate Illinois, and the township government provided its essential services. Voters elect a township board, who vote for a chair amongst themselves to be the de facto head of the government.


A couple decades ago a local insurance agent was elected to the board, and he soon became the chair. After a few years in that role the other board members felt it was time for one of them to take over, and they decided they would vote together to make one of them the chair in the next annual meeting.


The chair got wind of their plan, and he began calling people in the township to inform them of the annual meeting and to ask them to attend as a personal favor to him. He didn’t mention the vote to take place.


Virtually no one he called refused the invitation: The man had grown up in the community and starred in three sports in high school and then spent much of his free time as an adult coaching kids or organizing charity drives, church fundraisers, and PTA auctions. After two decades at his job he insured nearly every house and car and breadwinner in the township. Every voter felt he knew him personally, and almost to a person they felt a debt of gratitude to him.


That he also effectively did the job of township administrator was almost beside the point.


The day before the meeting he asked the principal of the grade school that hosted the event to move it from the cafeteria where it normally took place to the gym, which seats over 1,000 people. For good measure he also had the janitor–another friend of his–set up folding chairs on the gym floor as well.


When the meeting day arrived, hundreds of couples who lived in the township–including my septuagenarian parents–dutifully drove to the school, climbed into the bleachers, and patiently waited for their friend to arrive and to take in a meeting virtually none of them had ever participated in before and that had never had more than a dozen attendees.


Shortly after the appointed start time, and after the other trustees had taken their seats, the township chairman walked into the gym. As he entered, the 1,000 or so people who had gathered for their township meeting–which amounted to nearly half of the number who had voted in the previous local election–rose to their feet to welcome their friend.


After the rapturous applause died down, the meeting proceeded as it had in previous years: There was a formal recitation of the township’s budget, its accomplishments the previous year, and the agenda for the forthcoming year. At the end of the meeting the trustees unanimously voted to renew the chair’s term without debate.


After the meeting adjourned, the other trustees quietly left the gym while their chairman stepped down from the dais and spent the next hour catching up with his friends.