Needs, not wants

In this time of tumult when critics of Donald Trump are in the street, there is a notion out there that needs to be shot down, and it is coming from Democrats. Many of them seem to believe that elected officials are supposed to represent the views of the public.

A letter to the editor in the Reno Gazette-Journal argued, “By ignoring the will of the people, [U.S. Sen. Dean Heller] is building a deficit that will eventually come due. When it does, all the big money on God’s green Earth will not help him.”

We received a letter reading in part, “Amidst the very public and international outcry against President Trump’s recent immigration ban, our country has shown remarkable solidarity. The last count I saw showed 85 airport protests in more than 40 states.”

Protest and demonstrations are enormously useful. It’s easy to forget that before the 1960s, such events were frowned upon. Now they are a part of the political landscape, and that is as it should be. They can be used to throw spotlights on grievances and elevate issues that people in power prefer to avoid. But those who speak the loudest and meet in the greatest number are not necessarily right.

Elected officials are not supposed to represent the will of the people, which can be fleeting and changing. The notion is particularly dangerous after the 20th century’s invention of public relations techniques that make it possible to manipulate public opinion for the benefit of the few. Sometimes it is the duty of elected officials to restrain public opinion.

Nor are sheer numbers or volume of sound determinants of what the public wants. Turning out millions of people in January was healthy and productive, but those with the loudest voices are not necessarily the voice of the public.

Elected officials cannot know the will of the people. Polls are changeable, and we have often seen the tide of opinion change. Elected officials should be representing the interests of the people, using their best judgment to determine it. And that is normally the liberal view. It was just three years ago that Democrats were outraged by Nevada Assemblymember Jim Wheeler saying he would vote for slavery if his constituents wanted it.

“You elected a person for your district to do your wants and wishes, not the wants and wishes of a special interest, not his own wants and wishes—yours,” Wheeler said in 2013. Conservative British parliamentarian Edmund Burke said in 1774, “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.”

Elected officials should be serving the public’s needs, not the public’s wants. And conservatives were once the first to point out the republican aspects of democracy. What is troubling about the way “Never Trump” conservatives and Republicans have shed their opposition to Donald Trump is not that they have ignored protests and demonstrations but that they have shed historic conservative principles. If Trump turns out to be what many of us fear, conservatives will have a lot to answer for because they compromised conservatism to achieve power.