When Do Politicians Surrender Their Opinion to Voter Will?

Most politicians exist between the Burkean legislator and “hold finger up to the wind” politics, so it must be asked, when do politicians decide to surrender opinion to the voters?

I give a few cases:

H.R. Gross

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Republican H.R. Gross of Iowa developed his conservatism throughout the 1950s and may have been the most fiscally conservative individual to have served in Congress, usually maintained helping agriculture as an exception to his staunch conservatism. He opposed Ezra Taft Benson’s efforts at market reforms in agriculture in the 1950s…a callback to his formerly more rural populist viewpoints and a reflection of the rural interests of his district. Otherwise the Iowan was the dread of every Congressional big spender and every pork barrel politician. There wasn’t a single Great Society program that met with his approval, and he didn’t go along and get along with Nixon either.

J. William Fulbright

I recently covered the Faustian bargain Fulbright struck to stay in power, which you can read here:


Harry S. Truman

As a senator, Harry S. Truman voted for civil rights, but it was not out of his personal beliefs and his Southern colleagues understood this. Indeed, they had hoped when he took office in 1945 that they would have a president sympathetic to their perspective on the matter. Missouri hadn’t gone down the path of denying the vote to blacks and thus they were a factor in the state’s politics, even back then. Truman’s family had sided with the Confederacy during the War of the Rebellion and his mother hated Abraham Lincoln to the point she wouldn’t sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. Truman’s views on blacks and other minorities were, for much of his life, quite unfavorable. However, he needed the black vote to win in Missouri, and did so through his superficial support of civil rights. This only became genuine after he became president and learned of stories of black veterans being beaten and shot for trying to vote in the South, and went on to issue the executive order desegregating the military and was the first Democratic president to embrace a civil rights platform.

Edith Nourse Rogers

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Massachusetts Republican Edith Nourse Rogers served in Congress from 1925 to 1960, and the transition in her record is rather astonishing. In her first term, she was a Coolidge Republican, with her MC-Index score being an 87%. In the Congress of the First 100 Days legislation, she scored a 100%. Yet, in Eisenhower’s second term, her scores for the 85th and 86th Congresses respectively were 32% and 30%. This bears true for her Americans for Democratic Action scores as well: in 1949 she scored a 0% and in her last year, 1960, she scored an 89%. This does not seem to be an aberration in the character of who the district wanted elected: her successors, F. Bradford Morse and Paul Cronin identified with the liberal wing of the GOP, after which the district fell into, and has since stayed in, Democratic hands with the victory of Paul Tsongas in 1974. Additionally, Rogers opposed public housing when Truman was president, but she voted to sustain public housing when Eisenhower was president. Likewise, she backed a conservative substitute for a minimum wage increase in 1949 but opposed a conservative substitute for it in 1960. Rogers voted against the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 and repeatedly voted against expanding its authority…until 1959 when she was among  a mere handful of Republicans backing legislation increasing its bond powers. Such a change seems to be based on an increasingly liberal shift in her Lowell based district.

John Sharp Williams

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Alcoholism is a malady that has afflicted many a politician, and politicians who were voting on Prohibition were no exception. While alcoholic Senators Frank Brandegee (R-Conn.) and Charles Culberson (D-Tex.) were staunch foes of Prohibition, John Sharp Williams (D-Miss.) was a different story. Although he privately opposed Prohibition and was an alcoholic who had given up on trying to quit the bottle, he voted for Prohibition because the voters of Mississippi supported it. In this sense, he was supporting democracy in the most literal sense. He wasn’t alone among alcoholics who voted for Prohibition: Key Pittman of Nevada, whose drinking would eventually kill him, did so as well.

Charles Goodell

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I have discussed the father of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before, but it is hard to imagine that Congressman Goodell’s shift from establishment upstate New York Republican to staunchly left-wing anti-war Senator Goodell had no basis in the voter population. The purpose of his shift was to win another term on both the Liberal and Republican tickets, which his liberal Republican colleague, Jacob Javits, had pulled off. Although he did secure the Liberal ticket, he had overdone it and came in third. Another third party candidate, Conservative James L. Buckley, won the election. Goodell never held elected office again.

Michigan’s Republicans

The Republican Party stands for, theoretically, market economics but Michiganders, be they Democrats or Republicans, must back the auto industry. Thus, when the vote came on the auto bailout in 2008, every Michigan politician voted for it, no matter how conservative they claimed to be. Today Libertarian Justin Amash is one Michigan politician who would have the balls to vote against an auto bailout, but his time in Washington is short. I don’t think Amash has ever voted in a manner that didn’t reflect a principle of some sort.

The question must thus be asked, what constitutes genuine change in politics? An overnight flip certainly doesn’t strike me or probably anyone else as genuine, but a gradual change overtime is what makes genuine change. The perfect example here is Republican John B. Anderson of Illinois, whose change in beliefs from conservative to liberal overtime didn’t appear to reflect anything other than pure conviction as his district was still Republican when he left office and it remains Republican today.

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