We live in a time when elected officials and bodies seem determined to ignore the will of the populations they have been elected to represent. This phenomenon is observable in every governmental sphere — state, local, and national — and it threatens the democratic principle in the abstract and strikes at the core of our functioning democratic machinery at all the aforementioned levels.
We have just seen the House of Representatives and Senate in Washington, D.C., willfully ignore public sentiment, expressed in virtually every imaginable kind of opinion sampling, by passing an unpopular tax-cut giveaway for corporations and the wealthy few that will be paid for at the expense of the middle class — in the loss of accustomed deductions now, in the raising of future insurance premiums due to a provision of the bill weakening the mandates of the Affordable Care Act, and in the probable reduction of entitlement benefits down the line in the name of "economy."
Similarly, during the past decade, we have often seen the Tennessee legislature behave with contemptuous indifference to the public's unmistakeable disapproval of a plethora of gun bills that have ended up being enacted at the behest the NRA and other like-minded interests in the firearms industry. At the same time, the General Assembly, for naked partisan reasons, has turned its back on the expressed needs of individuals and the state's financially distressed hospitals by refusing billions in federal aid for Medicaid expansion.
And now we find Memphis city government flouting public need and citizen opinion with a series of proposals, some of which directly contravene the results of referenda carried out at the ballot box. There is a questionable ordinance proposed by Councilman Reid Hedgepeth, reportedly favored by the Strickland administration, as well, that would restrict the rights of public assembly under cover of assuring "order." There is the proposal by Councilman Ed Ford and others that would revoke the public's right, already expressed via referendum, to a fair trial of instant runoff voting (IRV) in the next city election, and there is an effort by Councilman Berlin Boyd on behalf of replacing a two-term limit for council members that was only recently approved by the voters.
There is room for concern, too, in county government, where a power struggle currently rages between a majority of the Shelby County Commission and the administration of county Mayor Mark Luttrell. The issues here are not as clear-cut, though the core matter of the moment is the need to sue for damages resulting from the over-proliferation of opioids in Shelby county. Sadly, all that is being litigated in Chancery Court is the incidental question of who has the authority to direct such legal efforts. A suit challenging the distributors of opioids is on file in Circuit Court but cannot go forward until the two branches of county government mediate an end to their jurisdictional dispute. Meanwhile, the public continues to suffer.
Surely, it is no big thing to ask the various governments we elect to represent the public will, but it seems a tenuous prospect just now.