On representation in a democracy

3 Dec

Theory of Representation

“Representation means the making present of something that is nevertheless not literally present.” (Pitkin, 1967) In a representative democracy, which, minimally construed, involves a mediating assembly for political decision making, representation, as defined by Hanna Pitkin, implies then an attempt to find the people in assembly’s political decision making.

But what exactly do we mean by that? Should we look for people’s values, thoughts, (current or stable, weak or strong) opinions (“phantom”, as Philip Converse puts it – though they may be?) in governance, and where exactly should we look — should it be policy, or institutional design, or process, or in the race and gender of representatives? Not to say that all of this rests upon the idea that these things (say opinions) can be coherently expressed by people (in aggregate), and cognizable in institutions, policy outcomes, etc. Other than these seemingly intractable questions of measurement, we also have substantive questions — who is represented, and to what degree, and why? And we must struggle with some normative questions that lie adjacent to the empirically posed question above — who/what should be represented, and in what degree?

Origins of our thinking about representation

There are two intersecting facets of how representation is understood, and perhaps should be — one is highlighting the cultural construction of concern with representation, and the other is historical understanding of representation.

Partly, idealized notions of representation are built against the inequalities manifest in the economic processes. The need for political equality/representation is a necessary counterpart to the society that has salient economic inequalities built of mythology of everything is possible for everyone.

Some of our understanding of representatives and control by people, constrained as they are by social norms of the Congress or bargaining between President and Congress, ought to be shaped by historical and normative conception. Historical foundations of current form of representation (in US) can be traced to at least Madison. As is commonly surmised, elite deliberation as a model for representation, was developed against the fear of the mob. True, but there was much positive thought guiding Madison’s idea of a modern democracy, and representation. It wasn’t just that unconstrained mass democracy is unsuitable, or the larger logistics based argument that mass democracies are untenable, Madison’s claim was that a desired effect of (elite) political representation is “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.” Of course to what degree he succeeded in that ideal is open to conjecture, if not open derision.

Partly we also get an understanding of what is to be represented by the prominent instruments that key institutions provide people to express or control their representatives. If representation implies the extent to which political leader acts in accordance with wants and need and demands on public, then we ought to look into how public can express its needs, and how those are funneled in the political process. Lets take for example, vote. We know for a fact that vote itself is a poor instrument for expressing multifaceted preferences. Vote is binary, or at best trichotomous. So typically the role of a citizen was conceived to be relatively minimal, at least on a per capita basis.

But by constraining ourselves to discussion about voting, arguably the single most potent symbol of democracy, we fail to fully understand the ability and opportunity provided by democratic governance systems.

More simply, not all representation is via representatives. Democratic governance systems provide multiple ways to shape the public’s agenda, shape public opinion on the agenda, and how it is fed into governance. It provides multiple modes (lobbying, media, etc.), multiple institutional entry points (courts, legislature, public hearings of executive branches etc.), multiple temporal entry points (at the crafting of law, or as its failings are exposed, or in restricting its application –prerogative of the executive branch etc.), through communication of dissent, and consent, and hence allows for representation in many different ways within the many different institutional frameworks.

Measurement: Who is represented?

One way to assess who is represented is to merely track the economic well being of various groups over time. Another would be to correlate opinion/policy of representatives with that of the opinion of the constituency. Given politicians often actively shape opinion, and the problems with using correlation (as highlighted by Christopher Achen), the measure is largely doomed. In addition – any such measure ought to incorporate – the agendas of people (problematic to measure), and their opinion on those agenda items. In other words, we ought to measure two things – are issues considered important by people/constituents considered similarly important by the representatives, and the ‘correlation’ in opinion on those issues. In absence of similar agenda priorities, the question about agenda would be hard to measure. And certainly concerns about strategic/manipulative agenda setting by politicians (Page and Shapiro recently came out with a book – Politicians don’t pander that gives this worry some legs) would be of import here as well.

What should be represented?

The answer to the question is murky. Clearly multiple things need to be represented. For example: say a policy has a disproportional negative impact on a small group of people – their concerns perhaps ought to be represented. It is inarguable that the representation structure somehow constrains what is to be represented, depending on how widespread the cognition of its impact is – and to what salience. Part of our answer to what ought to be represented depends on our conception of democracy. So if governance is at heart about allocation of meager resources, and it is certainly at least about that, then does ‘representation’ of one’s interests (hard to define) at the bargaining table as ‘interest groups’ (or mobilized segments of society) present their cases the ideal?

If we minimally understand people’s wants as interest in ‘better’ outcomes, and assuming that ‘better outcomes’ emerge from good information, we can perhaps then focus on representation of (all) information – be it differential impact of certain policies, or some innovative technique.

Role of a representative

Heinz Eulau et al. present two models of thinking about the role of a representative – Who is being represented (district/state) – this needs to be further disinterred; and how (?) (trustee, delegate, politico or hybrid). These axes are a small but essential kernel of a theory of a representative. Yet it would do us disservice if we think that representatives do one or the other, on any of the dimensions. To a very significant degree, the institutional mechanisms have evolved to dole out the pork (district) and deal with say national issues as well, and many a times getting the former accomplished seamlessly as part of the latter. Alternately phrased – it does us disservice to think of district and state orientation as polar opposites of a continuum. A broad set of policies accommodate both. Similarly, trusteeship needn’t automatically contradict the role of a delegate. The theorization of the role of a representative ought to take into account the ‘fact’ that given that over a large set of policy issues, population has minimal (if not ‘phantom’) opinions, what is his/her role and responsibilities? Is it opinion leadership or manipulation (again the reference to Page and Shapiro – Politicians don’t pander)? The Page and Shapiro version is considerably closer to the dystopic version outlined by Pitkin – mass democracy inevitably fades into “fascist” manipulation. The argument, differently expressed elsewhere, goes like this – representation in a democracy is best understood not in terms of accurate correspondence between pre-existing citizen preferences and subsequent government decision but rather as a “constructive” (if ideally working) process that shapes the very same preferences and perspectives that are represented.


Hanna Pitkin. The Concept of Representation. (1967)
Heinz Eulau et al. The Role of the Representative: Some Empirical Observations on the Theory of Edmund Burke. (1959)
Christopher Achen. Measuring Representation. (1978)