By Popular Demand: Revitalizing Representative Democracy through Deliberative Elections

By John Gastil | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Public Expression
in American Politics

As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the [House of Representatives]… should have an immediate dependence on and an intimate sympathy with the people.

The Federalist, No. 52 (attributed to James Madison)

From 1970 to 1977, Richard Fenno traveled with and interviewed eighteen members of Congress to study their interaction with local constituencies. Fenno discovered that successful representatives devote considerable energy to developing positive relationships with the most active residents of their districts. The most time-consuming activity for a congressional office is constituent service, which includes everything from helping a small business navigate the tax code to rushing a visa application for a forgetful traveler. At district meetings, moreover, representatives spend much of their time with individual citizens and groups of constituents. Members of Congress use these services and meetings to build up the name recognition, general favorability, and positive personality attributions that win votes in low- and mediumintensity elections. Fenno observed the representatives present themselves “in such a way that the inferences drawn by those watching will be supportive. ” The representatives themselves called these inferences “trust. ” According to Fenno, a constituent who trusts a representative is saying:

I am willing to put myself in your hands temporarily; I know you will have opportunities to hurt me, although I may not know when those opportunities occur; I assume—and I will continue to assume until it is proven otherwise—that you will not hurt me; for the time being, then, I'm not going to worry about your behavior. 1

-90-

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