The 137th Annual Richard T. Merrick Debate

The Tradition

On Saturday, April 21, 2012, the Phildomic Society gathered to celebrate the 137th Annual Richard T. Merrick Debate. First held in 1874, the Merrick Debate remains the Society’s most prestigious event. The resolution is itself debated by the Society at length months beforehand. Allowing for discussion about both contemporary politics and timeless philosophy, this year’s Merrick topic was, “Resolved: The politician should represent the interest, not the will, of the people.” 

Unlike keynoters for our weekly debates, which are decided based on seniority, the four Merrick keynoters are selected by the Society during a competitive spring season of debates. Being selected to keynote the Merrick Debate is an impressive achievement in and of itself, and the Society could not have been more pleased with this year’s keynoters:

Ms. Emma Green (COL ’12) of Tennessee

Chancellor Nicholas Iacono (COL ’12) of New York

Mr. Alexander Henderson (COL ’12) of North Carolina

Mr. Michael Manchester (MSB ’12) of Pennsylvania

Another integral part of the debate is the judges who preside and are charged with the task of awarding the Merrick Medal to the best speaker. This year we were incredibly honored to have six esteemed judges from a diversity of backgrounds:

Mr. Ed Crane, founder and president of the Cato Institute and publisher of Regulation magazine.

The Honorable Chai R. Feldblum, Commissioner of the Equal Employment Commission and professor at the Georgetown University Law Center

Mr. Julius Lloyd Horwich (SFS ’86), Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs in the US Department of Education.

Mr. Douglas Jehl, foreign editor of The Washington Post and former deputy Washington bureau chief of The New York Times.

Mr. Clark S. Judge, founding and managing director of the White House Writers Group, Inc. and an opinion journalist.

The Reverend Peter L’Estrange, S.J., Special Assistant to the President of Georgetown University.

The Society was incredibly lucky to have such renowned guests with us, and we thank them for generously offering their time.

The Debate

Ms. Emma Green began the debate by presenting the agreed upon assumptions, namely that politicians earnestly care and we are in a liberal democracy. In this democracy where we have rights and liberties, she asked, “Is it the role of the politician to ponder the needs of the constituents and act or to see their desires and mirror them?” In an ideal world the interest will of the people would align, but we are speaking about the exceptional cases. Utilizing the distinction Edmund Burke drew between the role of the delegate and of the representative, Ms. Green presented the argument that government is a matter of deliberation and reflection, not merely finding the intersection of the desires of the people. In considering important manners that will affect the entire body politic, such as the decision to go to war, individual constituents will obviously have their own personal opinions. However, the duty of the politician is more than simply mirroring public opinion polls; it is his job to discern what is the right course of action for the good of the people. Finally, she looked to find a definition for the “will of the people,” rejecting both majority rule for its tendency to dissolve into mob rule and Rousseau’s general will because that concept actually supports the affirmation more. She concluded that this is an issue of liberty and the sovereignty of the individual, which ignores the full role of the politician, who is entrusted with a great and terrible liberty and as such must have more tools than just the voices of his constituents.

On the negation, Mr. Henderson began by warning against two of Sir Francis Bacon’s ideas of the mind: the idles of the theater and the idles of the cave, reminding the Society that we are all members of the body politic and that we are the people and the will. Pushing back against the affirmation’s elevation of the role of the politician, he argued that a government set up in that way will not allow the people to have a voice, making citizens into subjects. Although this has the potential to create a just and equitable government, it will only do so if we ensured that the rulers were the most virtuous. Furthermore, a democratic regime that ceases to consider the will of the people—which he described as the “art of knowing what is good for you without bothering to ask”—will cease to be democratic. Looking to the Federalist Papers, Mr. Henderson cited number 59, arguing that the security we have against the tyranny of the majority arises from politicians being bound to their people’s wills, which will differ and non reach consensus on many issues. He offered a new theory of how the government should operate, arguing that politicians should seek a congruence of interest and will, not reducing it to the simple narrative of one, and should also incorporate many other factors, not allowing interest to override all. Once he has reached a conclusion he should go back to the people and attempt to persuade them, then actually listen to their responses, which, while arduous, is the surest safeguard of liberty.

Chancellor Iacono then took upon himself the task of bridging the gap between the ancient philosophers and current politics, speaking about the founding, task, and danger of our politics. Our founders rejected the view of the negation, and were tasked with dealing with the contradictory and fleeting nature of public opinion while attempting to avoid the dangers of the past, present, and future. He argued that will is not an efficient way to rule a country of disparate interests, nor does it consistently represent what is good for the nation. Asking the Society which side actually treats its citizens more like children and creates more self-serving politicians, Chancellor Iacono answered that the answer is the negation. That politician panders to the people to earn their votes, doing what is popular, not what is right. Ultimately, when we elect our politicians we do not send them in as a seismograph of public opinion specifically because the affirmation has more trust in the people. Arguing that it is the populous tendencies of the negation that create the stigma surrounding politics, he pointed out that the affirmation is a two-way street and the lifeblood of civic virtue. Finally, he ended with the example of Daniel Webster, who, in his speech against the bill for the right of secession, declared, “Necessity compels me to speak true, rather than pleasing things…I should indeed like to please you; but I prefer to save you.”

On the negation, Mr. Manchester presented the will of the people, not their interests, as the objective measure and framed the debate as one of paternalism versus populism, as well-being versus autonomy. He then refuted Ms. Green’s dismissal of majoritarian politics, stating that we should be asking what the majority of the people want and what is best for the majority of the people. He argued that man does not actively campaign against what is best for him and discussed studies that show that without incentives, large groups will act far less often than smaller, radical minorities. Additionally, he pointed out that politicians are just as susceptible to “group think,” and brought up the fact that in DC, there are over 23 lobbyists, whose job it is to argue for a non-majority interest, per each member of Congress. “It’s harder to corrupt a whole people than a small group of politicians to whom the special interests cater,” he argued. Finally, he too presented a new view of government, arguing that the best politician should spend more time with his constituents, bringing the experts to them but then leaving them with the choice. Although he admitted that the negation’s government is not perfect, it is far better than the affirmation where people are removed from government.

Beginning the floor speeches, Mr. Dulik began by quoting Burke, “A representative owes you not just his industry but his judgment as well,” which he applied to the historical example of Dr. Hall from Georgia, which was mainly Loyalist at the time, but who voted against his constituents’ will and signed the Declaration of Independence, doing what was right for them. Although the risks are high, he argued that the greatest accomplishments have come from these controversial decisions. On the negation, Mr. Spagnuolo countered that politicians, although they must believe in themselves, are nothing more than any of us and if they disregard the people then we are headed astray in a very bad way because the people do in fact know what is best for them. Ms. Melendez disagreed, speaking about the first time she voted in California and had to decide if money should be moved from one fund to another. Although she attempted to research the issue she could not draw an informed conclusion, which led her to the conclusion that it is our will for the politician to represent our interests. Pointing out that an issue like that is an argument only against referendum, Ms. Daniels argued that the job of the politician includes the will of the people. She brought up issues like gay rights to demonstrate the problems of populism, but argued that those problems are far more temporary than the problems of paternalism because the will of the people will shift with time. Mr. Walker countered this point with the example of the Iraq War, which received popular support from most politicians who said that it was the will of the people. He warned that there must be more than simply asking people what they think when it comes to matters of life and death. Mr. Hipple reframed the debate, defining will as the questions: “Who are we?” and “What do we believe in?” Although we currently have a system of government that we agree with for the most part, he asked the Society to consider what would happen if it were corrupt and tyrannical. On the affirmation Mr. Medina asked exactly who the people are, reminding us that at one point it was only propertied, white men. “Who represents the people who don’t have a say?” he asked. He argued that history moves forward when people reinterpret the concept of justice, when the renegades and the rebels not only stand up and point out that we are wrong, but then do something about it, thus propelling history and making the world a better place. Mr. Askonas declared that he stood on the negation to push against the harsh dichotomy being created between the exceptional and the ordinary. He argued that in moments of crisis, power goes to represent the interests as great men accumulate and take power until eventually the people are no longer represented. Although these leaders may be great, the people will feel disconnected and so he stands on the negation to assert that we must come together again. Finally, Mr. Rinaldi, using the example of Senator Edwards, argued that the negation gives a smokescreen to the politicians because they can do whatever they want so long as they appear to be doing what is right. Populism can hide egomaniacism while what we need in our politicians is courage. He concluded, “You must affirm this resolution to affirm our country.”

Mr. Manchester addressed the issue of the War in Iraq, arguing that it was started by special interests, not by populous politics, because it is special interests that corrupt the interest politician. On the other hand, the negation assumes equal footing with the politician and the people tell him what to do directly; as such, the will politician is less susceptible to corruption. He concluded, “The politician is a man too—better only in espousing rhetoric and charisma—and to say that he understand me better than I understand myself is a grave error.”

Chancellor Iacono countered that the on the negation, as constituents we succeed based on how well we can fit in with the 51% of the population. Refuting the idea that the problems of populist politics are temporary, he asked if in the 1930s we would have sold arms to England and sent soldiers if we went on will, demonstrating that these are not fleeting problems; this would have changed history. He then used the example of Charles Weltner who represented a pro-segregation district in Georgia in 1962. Although his constituents made it clear that he was not to support the Civil Rights Act, he became convinced that this bill would uphold the 14th Amendment and was the right thing, warning, “We must not remain forever bound to a lost cause.” Although it was not the will of the people, he acted in a way that he believed upheld the law and the interest of the people. Finally, he concluded with a line from Ms. Green’s Library Report: “We must be true to our principles and traditions because liberty cannot eloquently defend itself.”

On the affirmation, Mr. Henderson refuted the idea that the negation was making politicians out to be seismographs for public opinion; rather, the negation offers a variety of inputs, asserting that interest cannot be the end of the line. Arguing in favor of conversational politics, he asserted that the government should be raising the refined voice of the people—refined, but still theirs. He brought up John Keynes who declared that no democratic society would reach the level of efficiency necessary to successfully implement economic policies. The only country that was successful was Nazi Germany, and we do not want that alternative. He argued that when we confine the considerations at play to one person’s gut instincts, we put ourselves at danger. Refuting the notion that the issue of the Iraq War requires a vote on the affirmation, he defined real moral courage as telling a group of people that they are wrong, and then persuading them of the truth like Pericles who was constantly in the Agora translating thought into speech. Ultimately, as citizens we have an obligation to form an opinion and provide our politicians with our will.

Finally, Ms. Green argued that this is not the black and white issue that it had been presented as; the affirmation also wants politics to be a conversation because you cannot just have the will of the people. She noted that the affirmation did not assert that politicians are better than us, but rather, the only thing we have to rely on is our conscience. They must take in as much information as they can and then decide what the best action is to take for their body politic. She asserted that there are instances of issues that require much work and effort, but ultimately sometimes they are for the best of society. She summarized the concept of leadership as an individual using all of his faculties and his conscience to lead his people as a whole, not just by the whims of the day. Ultimately, it is through deliberation and trying to discern the views of all that we take into account those without a vote and determine what is best for the people.

After the final speech, members of the Society rose and divided the room to vote on the resolution. By a count of 47-18-3, the Society affirmed, “Resolved: The Politician Should Represent the Interest, Not the Will, of the People.” In addition, the keynoters awarded Mr. Samuel Dulik with the Father Ryder Award, which recognizes the best floor speech of the debate.

The Merrick Medal Recipient

At the end of the debate, the judges were given the extremely difficult task of selecting a recipient of the Merrick Medal—the only medal of its kind that can be worn at graduation. After lengthy deliberation, the Honorable Chai R. Feldblum presented the award to the very gracious Chancellor Nicholas Iacono. Congratulations!

Thank you to all of our keynoters, judges, members, and guests for making the 137th Merrick Debate such a memorable day.


Emily R. Coccia

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