By Dane Stier
The term “statesman” today tends to invoke little more than weak sympathetic sentiment for fantasized leaders of times long since passed. The current quality of political rhetoric in legislative debate fails to justify to expectant Americans centuries of blood spilt in the defense of freedom and Democratic representation. For many, the sad question of contemporary politics asks, “Where have all the statesmen gone?”
The question itself presupposes a conventional definition of “statesman” of which I would contend has not been yet thoroughly developed. Generally, statesman denotes simply a political leader willing to put the interests of a country or a majority opinion first, even should the resulting actions contradict his or her own principles.
Such a definition, however, is untenable, as the views of what, exactly, constitutes the nation’s best interests differs extensively throughout the citizenry. For a more universally useful and acceptable conception of “statesman,” we consequently must remove from it any and all associations with what actions are taken. A statesman should be so regardless of the particular affiliations or beliefs that make him or her vulnerable to the bias of partisan and philosophical discord.
The actions of a political leader endure criticisms from three primary perspectives: what they did, how they did it, and why they did it. How an act is accomplished extends directly from what the act is, and thus also submits itself to subjectivity. Furthermore, both what and how ultimately result from the initial causation, why, and it is therefore my affirmation that a statesman must be so ordained through consideration of the source of reasoning used in determining all of his or her consequent actions.
Should politicians loyally adhere to their own principles, or should the conviction of the majority perpetually bear precedent? Currently, the American people often present inconsistent expectations for representatives. As many as 70% of voters opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at one time; left-leaning voters demanded disregard for the majority opposition, yet it is now the law of the land.
Alternatively, the Manchin-Toomey gun control bill, though increased background checks reportedly find support among some 86% of voters, failed to pass Congress, yet left-leaning voters expected Senators to comply with the overwhelming opinion of Americans. With each issue, the position of each party today tends to adapt to defend the most convenient source of judgment, demonstrating a significantly divided and unreliable expectation for elected officials.
Honest politicians campaign for office on individual intentions and virtues. If supported by a significant portion of electors, they get elected. Why then must these leaders renounce their principles for those they do not hold, but that the majority does? I turn to the wisdom of British politician and theorist Edmund Burke. In 1774, Burke’s Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll included the following:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
If representatives relied solely upon the views of their constituencies, their position would be at times subject to the whims of a less informed and involved populace, rather than their own judgments. This would ultimately lead to unprincipled, ineffectual vote pandering. Why not simply then remove such political intermediaries and instead authorize a popular vote on all issues? If, alternatively, politicians served only according to their own views and principles, they might vote against the wishes of the broader population. But for what other reason are representatives allotted only a limited tenure? When the consensus experiences revision, new principles and leadership may be prescribed.
Of course, certain topics may not ultimately find guidance in one’s own philosophy, as can be expected from representatives on occasion. When no principles may be consulted on such an issue, a political leader confronts an obligation to submit to the majority opinion of his or her constituency, as electors withhold the capacity to adjudicate on all matters that encounter their representatives.
Consequently, I propose a reappraised definition for statesman: a political leader who, given a temporary tenure of service, acts strictly in accordance with his or her own philosophically consistent principles, and who relinquishes his or her own judgment to that of electors only when such principles cannot dictate the appropriate position on a given matter.
From this, representatives may be judged by their own integrity and resolution, rather than through the biased lenses of partisan and personal altercation. It could be that through such a recast interpretation of statesman, we may very well recognize that such honorable leaders do remain, ready to stand firm by the principles, ideas, and promises for which we chose them to serve. In the wise words of President Ronald Reagan, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes . . . they just don’t know where to look.” Perhaps he’s right.