The Democratic Party’s internal schism over the conflict between Israel and Hamas has revealed a deep confusion among many of its personnel over the role of paid staff. If you work for an elected official, your role is to give your boss the best advice you can — which can include your personal opinion about how he or she should handle a difficult political issue. If that elected official nonetheless holds positions you find so morally abhorrent you can’t tolerate them, traditionally your next move might be to quit and perhaps even denounce your former employer publicly.
Instead of taking either of those last steps, however, hundreds of Democratic Party staffers are adopting an in-between position. They are protesting their boss’s positions on the Middle East — signing petitions criticizing their stances and attending masked rallies with signs saying “Congress, your staff demands a cease-fire” — while remaining in their employ.
The rebellious Democratic staffers have received news coverage ranging from respectful to openly sympathetic. Yet their behavior reflects a misunderstanding of how elected representation is supposed to function.
The staff revolt makes two broad claims. First, they depict the conflict as a clear-cut moral test with one obvious solution: a cease-fire.
Second, they insist that their position as staffers gives them a clearer sense of public opinion than their bosses possess. “Our constituents are pleading for a cease-fire, and we are the staffers answering their calls. Most of our bosses on Capitol Hill are not listening to the people they represent,” claimed staffers at the staff rally. “This building is not listening,” a Democratic aide told HuffPost recently. “I’ve never seen such a disconnect between where voters and constituents are and where Congress is, and that’s saying something because there’s always a disconnect.”
The morality of the issue is actually complex, not simple. Hamas is dedicated to ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population and has no intention of altering its goals or even accepting a cease-fire. Israel’s counteroffensive is taking a horrific toll on innocent Palestinian life, but failing to respond to Hamas risks innocent Israeli life. Fighting against terrorist groups that use civilian death as a strategy is a hard problem without simple answers. Holding signs and flowers outside your boss’s office does not actually resolve the dilemma.
The political analysis used by the staffers is even more peculiar. Phone calls to congressional offices are not, in fact, a representative sample of public opinion. And even if phone calls were the same thing as polls, members of Congress are not obligated to follow public opinion on every issue. Phone calls ran overwhelmingly against the Affordable Care Act in 2009 to 2010, but Democrats mostly ignored them.
Responsibility for assessing the morality and political efficacy of the U.S. posture toward Israel, or any other issue, lies with elected officials. Those officials are accountable to the public, not to their own staff. The beliefs of young, college-educated professionals on Israel, along with just about everything else, are well to the left of the median voter. People who run for office specialize in understanding public opinion, which requires frequently disregarding the far more progressive values of their deeply unrepresentative staff.
Obviously, those staffers have no obligation to continue working for a member of Congress who they believe is either pro-genocide or too incompetent to accept their analysis of public opinion. Yet they have taken the strange view that their answer instead is to stage rallies denouncing the member of Congress who they are supposed to be working for.
The staffers signing the petition explained that they were doing so anonymously “out of concern for our personal safety, risk of violence and the impact on our professional credibility on Capitol Hill” (italics added). Since pro-Palestinian demonstrators have not faced violent reprisals in Washington, D.C., I’m guessing the latter factor, professional credibility, weighed more heavily than the former two.
And properly so! If an elected official hires you to look out for their interests, and instead you attend rallies and sign petitions labelling that elected official a moral monster, I’d say your professional credibility is very much in doubt. Indeed, that behavior indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of the job of congressional staffer.
The revolting staff genuinely seem to genuinely believe they have a right to bring their employers into alignment with their own beliefs. “A lot of staffers feel like they live in an upside-down world,” said Waleed Shahid, a former Capitol Hill spokesperson for the left-wing faction Justice Democrats. “They have to go into work and put their heads down and just write a statement or release a statement from their boss that they absolutely in the core of their being disagree with.”
That’s not upside-down. That’s how the world works and how it’s supposed to work. What’s upside-down is the assumption members of Congress should yield to their staffers’ issue preferences rather than vice versa.