This Week’s “Slavery Quote” Republican Doesn’t Know What A Republic Is
The latest racially-inflammatory statement to come from a Republican politician is from Jim Wheeler, a Nevada state assemblyman who said he would vote for slavery if his constituents wanted him to.
The bizarre claim was made in response to a question at a town hall meeting about what Wheeler would do if he and his constituents disagreed over an issue (Wheeler had recently opposed a bill requiring DNA testing for felony convictions, but ultimately voted for it because of support for it in his district). He then used an extreme example to show how far he would go to represent his constituents opinions, no matter how terrible he personally found them:
“If that’s what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose, I’d have to bite my tongue and they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah, if that’s what the constituency wants that elected me, that’s what they elected me for[...] That’s what a republic is about. 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 later clarified the statement, saying it was “clearly facetious,” and that he would rather face electoral defeat or resign than vote for something like slavery.
(Although, if he had been serious, he wouldn’t be the first recent Republican to genuinely endorse slavery.)
Regardless, Wheeler showed massive insensitivity choosing such an inhumane and painful institution to make a rhetorical point. His poor judgement is further evidenced by his poor conception of how democratic republicanism tries to function in the US.
While often broadly describing any government where power is invested in the people and not a hereditary ruler, republicanism in the US has come to mean a representative system of government distinct from direct democracy. In other words, the people don’t make every individual decision about governing- they chose the people who do. Involving constituents in every single decision would contribute to impassable gridlock and inefficiency- and probably has.
Even Wheeler understands this to some degree: in his clarification, he notes he can, in fact, go against the wishes of his constituents, and face the consequences. While obviously not a great deal for Wheeler, it’s still an option. What he doesn’t say is that not every disagreement with constituents is necessarily fatal for political careers, and that elected officials can use their position to sway voters with new perspectives- it’s not just a one-way street.
Wheeler’s stunning willingness to be swayed by loud voters and polling data illustrates how a kind of mob rule can be just as dangerous as the “special interests” and personal opinions he decries. Certainly every elected official must reconcile their constituents opinions and their own beliefs; but there must be a middle ground between political aloofness and voting for the return of slavery.