As the Democratic primary commences, voters are starting to scrutinize the candidates’ voting records and positions on previous issues. This is perhaps the most crucial phase for these candidates: squaring their past with their vision of the future.
We see Pete Buttigieg struggling with a lack of experience and his alleged issues with the black community in South Bend, Joe Biden recovering from a four decade career in the U.S. government, and Elizabeth Warren experiencing backlash from her self-proclaimed Native American heritage.
And then there is Bernie Sanders. A man heralded for his consistent political beliefs going back decades. Like a bottle of wine aging in the cellar, Sanders’ political beliefs have been waiting for the right moment to be opened.
However, in a representative democracy, consistency is not necessarily a good thing. Representation means that elected officials are accountable for, and in tune with, the views of their constituents. Over the course of 40 years, an elected official should not hold one single, consistent stance on an issue. Instead, their stance should evolve. A representative should take the side that best helps their constituents and reflect their constituents’ values and opinions.
American voters, especially Democrats in this election cycle, need to be more aware of this fact. Asserting politicians should be more representative while in office but complaining they are inconsistent snakes come election time is logically inconsistent. You cannot be both representative of an evolving constituency and entirely consistent over a political career.
In this primary cycle, Sanders is the candidate with a consistent constituency. His home state, Vermont, has also been one of the most consistently liberal constituencies in the United States. This has allowed him to be a pillar of liberalism since he became mayor of Burlington in 1981.
That was also the first year Democrats had been competitive in Vermont in over four election cycles. Since he ran for his first national office in 1988, the presidential vote margin in favor of the Democrats has never fallen below 10 percent, and routinely hovers around 20.
The other candidates’ states offer a stark comparison. Indiana, Buttigeg’s state, has varied dramatically in the last 20 years, in both voting margins and party allegiance. Since Biden assumed office in the Senate, Pennsylvanian voters have favored Nixon, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Gore, Clinton, Obama, and Trump. Had they not changed and adapted to reflect their constituents, Buttigieg and Biden would have been voted out of office or vilified as representative failures.
My point is that unless a candidate’s voter base is static, they cannot be lauded as “consistent” in the Sanders fashion.
Yes, these candidates have to be accountable for the consequences of their votes and speeches. But demanding strict ideological constancy can mean ignoring constituents’ wishes. We, as voters and constituents, need to remember that candidates are, at their best, reflections of their districts. If they previously took controversial actions by 2020’s standards, the public played some role in shaping those actions.
I want candidates to be accountable. But those with prior political experience, who openly admit their mistakes and are taking concrete actions to remedy those mistakes, should not be discounted. Not everyone can come from a liberal bastion with practically no minority opinion voters.
I will applaud any candidate who effectively represented the interests of their entire constituency. If that constituency evolves, any representative — whether running for higher office or not — should change to reflect those new preferences. The president does not only represent their party, despite however much we may wish that to be true. The same can be said for every candidate who has ever held an elected position currently running in this primary.
Holding dogmatic and doctrinal beliefs is not conducive to effective representation or future legislation; we should not expect candidates to devoutly adhere to one ideology. If they did, they would make poor presidents. Taking hardline moral and political stances makes for beloved martyrs, but poor politicians.