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In a Democracy

By John Guy on February 25, 2014 in Civic Blog
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FEMA Public Assistance Kick off Meeting at City of AtlantaIn a Democracy, a common criticism of legislators and elected administrators is “they only want to be elected,” articulated by an individual or group that disagrees with policies and decisions.

“They only want to be elected” at once declares both a truth and a misunderstanding.  The civically literate observer must understand both.

The truth is that a candidate for office, or an office holder, must choose.  He or she must decide whether to vote for or against The Affordable Health Care Act, to prosecute an individual, to promote a sports stadium, to hire more police and firemen, to fix your chuck hole or someone else’s.  Every choice is between two or more values, and every value has supporters and detractors.  Every choice is within the context of limited resources.  For the office holder, every choice is made in the public eye, a context unknown and unappreciated by most of us whose important decisions are private.  Our mistakes, those of private individuals, rarely subject us to intense scrutiny or to being removed from our job or office.  We do not spend hours a day representing the views of others and finding solutions acceptable to the majority of those who support us.

The broad truth is that someone must be elected.  Presumably, that someone “wants” to be elected because he has filed for candidacy, but much more important to our system is that someone must come forward to fill available positions, and to represent geographic areas.  Someone must win the election. So, yes, those folks “want to be elected,” and their actions further the ambition.

To be elected, an individual has to garner either a majority or a plurality of votes.  Those votes come from a complex array of rich and poor, management and labor, conservative and liberal, physicians and secretaries, attorneys and insurance agents, the healthy and unhealthy, each with distinct values and self interests, and, commonly, with views held so deeply, and so solidly entrenched, that they come to believe their views are shared by all.  Most voters I have met go as far as to declare that their views are synonymous with beliefs of  all “the people;” in their opinion, an officeholder who does not act according to their world view “does not represent the American people.” An incorrect perception is that our personal view is the majority view, that policies affecting us profoundly affect others in the same way, that our neighbor loves his pit bull even though we fear it.

A candidate sees civic life differently.  She is not irrevocably committed to one set of opinions.  Instead, candidates bring together in one coalition enough diverse views to earn the required number of votes.  Let us imagine for a moment that in any geographic area, only one coalition exists, one combination of votes that will result in being elected.  This implies that any candidate must obtain those votes from an identical coalition.  It assumes any person running for office must represent the complex opinions of that coalition.  In other words, to win required votes, the name of the candidate is of marginal importance.  Joe Candidate or Beth Candidate.  Does not matter.  Either must put together the coalition. The misunderstanding is that elected individuals represent only themselves when the truth is they represent the values of a coalition.  The civically literate among us respect that truth.

John Guy is a certified financial planner, is author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale,” and president of Indianapolis-based Wealth Planning & Management LLC. He regularly writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal and contributes to the Civic Blog.

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