All students in previous generations who took classes in Political Science at the University of Utah knew JD Williams, an unabashed and enthusiastic liberal professor who became the first Director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. After his wife Bea, JD’s first love was politics. He spent his life teaching it, trying his hand at it (he ran for the Senate unsuccessfully in 1968) and opining on it at every opportunity. Even when you disagreed with him, as I did, most of the time, you couldn’t help but love him, as I did, most of the time.
One of the things he used to complain about was how American campaigns differed from European ones. In America, national party leaders had little or no say in who the candidates would be and local matters intruded into campaigns. A Utah Republican could run on issues different from those stressed by, say, a Wisconsin Republican, and ideological ties between them might be very weak. JD yearned for what he called “national” Congressional campaigns, where local concerns were subverted to issues facing the country as a whole. After the Republicans swept to power in 1994 by tapping national unease about Bill Clinton, he told me, “This is really ironic. I finally get the kind of national election I wanted but it’s Newt Gingrich that makes it happen.”
By now, JD’s wish has been fully granted. Current American campaigns have become national. This year, all across the country, Republicans are running against Obamacare and Democrats are talking about income inequality, tying it to their effort to increase the minimum wage. Both approaches are consistent with polling data; Obamacare is opposed and the minimum wage supported by a majority of Americans. Local issues will take a back seat.
Campaigns have also become perpetual. Cable news channels and political blogs spew out opinion pieces 24/7. There are no “off years” anymore, those times between elections when legislators used to speak to each other in order to solve problems rather than to exchange insults. This further diminishes the opportunity to deal with issues tied to individual states or regions.
I was reminded of how important a part of our politics those issues have been by a conversation I had with the British Ambassador during the fight over the debt limit. He asked how much power party leaders in Congress had. I explained they were not like Prime Ministers in a Parliamentary system. “Senator McConnell could ask me to vote in support of his leadership, which I usually did, but he could not compel it. As a Senator from Utah, I was answerable to the citizens of Utah, not the party. The rationale for a contrary vote that was always immediately accepted, on both sides of the aisle, was, ‘In my judgment, that would not be in the best interests of the people of my state.’”
The Ambassador said, admiringly, “That shows that you live in a representative democracy, which we do not.”
We ought to remind ourselves of that fact often, and be proud of it. With all sorts of groups pushing their own national agendas into the perpetual campaign — groups that will not tolerate any deviation from the orthodoxy of their views — we should insist that our representatives be willing to defy those groups when they believe it is in the interest of their own states and districts to do so. National issues are vitally important, but the Constitution created a system where local ones could be fully considered as well.
If JD Williams were still alive, I would enjoy having a conversation with him about that.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.