Jim Wheeler: He's no Stephen Douglas

Before the Civil War tore apart the country, a senator by the name of Stephen Douglas tried to find a middle ground on slavery with what became known as the “popular sovereignty” movement.

That would have allowed territory residents to decide the slavery question by directly voting on the issue, thus bypassing Congress. Abraham Lincoln disagreed, and the idea sparked a bloodletting that eventually resulted in the new Republican Party, one firmly opposed to slavery.

Now, a century and a half later, a very different kind of Republican named Jim Wheeler appears to be the anthropomorphized resurrection of the movement, adding an utterly insane and thoughtless ramble about slavery to the great pantheon of Nevada political gaffes:

“If the citizens of District 39 want to bring slavery back, I’m voting for slavery.  So I wrote him a letter back and I said, yeah, you know, but that’s what they want.  I have to hold my nose and have to bite my tongue and they probably have to hold a gun to my head but yeah, if that’s what the citizens of the – if that’s what the constituents want, who elected me, that’s what they elected me for.  That’s what a republic is about.”

Wheeler’s comments came in August to a Storey County GOP group, part of a bizarre 51-minute colloquy in which he also trashed Las Vegas. But it was his comment about acceding to his constituents’ preference on slavery, even under duress, that will last longest.

In so doing, Wheeler caused a firestorm of predictable trajectory – politicians sprinting away from him as fast as their clichés could carry them while he gamely and yet lamely tried to apologize IF he offended anyone –while crystallizing exactly what ails the body politic, from DC to Carson City.

Plenty has been said and will be said by local and national commentators about just how inane and destructive Wheeler’s remarks were about voting for slavery if his constituents wanted it.  Of course Wheeler should have scoffed, talked about reality, good and evil, etc.


But his ignorance of the 13th Amendment and his inability to think clearly notwithstanding, what is much more serious and insidious is Wheeler’s staggering -- and, I fear, shared -- ignorance, in his own words, of “what a republic is about.” His argument, that he should have fealty above all to his voters’ capricious desires, indicates the shallowness of some conservative thought, especially in Nevada where all you have to do to deserve the moniker is say “no new taxes” or sign some inane pledge not to do so.

Indeed, that is antithetical to what the Founding Fathers intended. They did not believe that elected representatives should bow to the will of the people – yet how many times do you hear the president or a member of Congress or the Gang of 63 talk about how they are uniquely qualified (or smart enough poll-watchers) to understand what the voters want.

Madison, Hamilton et. al. would be mortified by the subversion of the idea of a republic by “leaders” who cut and run at the first sign of instapoll trouble, who stand up for their principles only if they align with what they believe the people want. They fear; therefore they genuflect.

Like Wheeler, too many elected officials are captives of their constituents, not leaders of them. They don’t want to educate their voters on tough issues; they want to bend to them. They are more afraid of losing their precious elected titles than being representatives of the people.

Forgive them Founders; they know not what they do.

And how quickly they forget. Take Federalist 10:

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the People, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the People themselves, convened for the purpose.”

That, Assemblyman Wheeler, is what a republic is about.

What Wheeler said that August day, that he would vote for slavery if his constituents so desired, was very unusual and highly offensive. But what it exemplifies, politicians following rather than leading, is too common and too depressing.