Our View: Answers not always black and white

Published 9:39 am Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Multiple state legislators have recently mailed surveys to their constituents, asking where they stand on many issues that may be dealt with during the 2019 General Assembly, which begins today.

We commend those who have made this effort to understand what the people want.

Some of the questions on the surveys may be written in a leading manner designed to get the answer the politician wants, but the surveys are a gesture in support of our democratic ideals nonetheless.

We hope everyone who receives such a survey fills it out and sends it back. And we hope the legislators who went to the trouble of surveying their constituents put the results of their surveys to good use.

Even those who didn’t send surveys have their own ways of gathering input from the people who voted them into office. And they should. They were elected to serve the people and they can only do so if they know what the people want.

Actually figuring out what the people want is about as complex a job as you can ask for.

The only thing you know for sure is someone will be unhappy with whatever choices you make.

When it comes to listening to voters and making good decisions, there are a few ways our legislators can do both:

— They shouldn’t view the opinions of their constituents as black and white. Even when there’s strong support one way or the other on an issue, there’s still a minority of people who disagree, and they matter, too. There are also often people who have conflicting thoughts or don’t know what to think at all. Legislators should make sure they know whether there’s strong support or opposition to a policy, or if their voters are largely divided. But they should never pretend “the will of the people” is a single voice.

— They shouldn’t use public opinion as a bludgeon in an effort to shut down debate. History is full of good ideas that are dominant now, but started out as marginalized, minority viewpoints. What the majority wants is important, but the pursuit of the majority’s desire should always be tempered with respect for the minority, or you run the risk of being on the wrong side of history.

— They shouldn’t base their decisions solely on constituents’ opinions. Voters’ opinions are one piece, not the whole puzzle. Legislators should also ask experts and listen with open minds to those voting differently. They should also always take a long-view approach that prioritizes sustainability and return on investment over short-term agendas or cheap political points.

— They shouldn’t be afraid to change their minds — as long as they’re changing their minds because of the facts and not the political winds. Refusing to ever change course is not a sign of being right, even though it’s often perceived that way. It’s a sign of being immune to facts, which is a bad thing in those responsible for writing our laws.

— They should actively seek out the opinions of constituents who don’t agree with them or didn’t vote for them. Legislators will naturally hear plenty from their supporters. But if you only listen to people you agree with, you will trap yourself in an idealogical and informational bubble. The best ideas are those that have been put to the test against opposing viewpoints and refined until they can withstand criticism. Those kinds of ideas never form in the minds of people living inside bubbles.