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From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 7.1
Delegate vs. Trustee
Hanna Pitkin’s 1967 book The Concept of Representation is a foundational book for many political scientists. A key point that she makes is that there are many different kinds of representation, with different functions and expectations. Representation typically involves some principal (whether an individual or group or other thing), and an agent (the representative.) Representation may be formal (with authorization and accountability), symbolic, descriptive (resemblance), or substantive (action taken). Electoral representation is primarily concerned with the formal and substantive aspects. The proper role of an elected representative has been a topic of debate for centuries, and that role remains ambiguous today.
One of the quandaries in the realm of electoral representation is whether a representative should act as a “delegate” who faithfully transmits the opinions and wishes of their constituents into the legislative body, or should serve more as a trustee, exercising independent judgment, free to vote as they think is best for the welfare of either the constituents, or the nation as a whole. After all, representatives might gain information and insights that their constituents don’t. In 1789 France, the representatives of the Third Estate (the commoners) were intended to be delegates, but they quickly took on a different (revolutionary) role.
The person most commonly associated with this debate is Edmund Burke, a political theorist and member of the British Parliament. Born in Ireland in 1729, he moved to England and ended up representing various different districts as an MP. He was seen as a friend of the American revolutionaries and Ireland, though a severe critic of the French revolutionaries. While he did not favor democracy, nor giving average citizens the vote, he was a stalwart advocate of a representative government among the well-to-do. Burke famously argued that
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
What is the purpose of legislative debate if representatives are mere delegates, locked into their positions? Those attending the US Constitutional Convention were referred to as “delegates,” but certainly did not see their role as merely transmitting the views of their respective state legislatures. As Madison argued, no “delegate” there could confidently state what view his constituents might have today, or six or twelve months hence, nor what they would think if they possessed the information and insights the members in attendance might gain. Thus, he argued, even the dictates of the amendment process specified in the Articles of Confederation, or the wishes of the state legislators should not restrict the Philadelphia convention representatives: “We ought to consider what was right and necessary in itself.”
Unlike this Convention that was seeking to craft something completely new, where members often had no preset opinions, it should be noted that modern legislative chambers rarely exhibit any meaningful give and take or deliberation. As political scientist John Dryzek stated in describing a modern legislative chamber, it is
“not a deliberative assembly in Burke’s sense [but] rather a theatre of expression where politicians from different sides talk past each other in mostly ritual performance. Party politicians do not listen, do not reflect and do not change their minds.”
As a twenty-year lawmaker myself, I can confirm his description, with only the rare exception to the rule.
In no country are national legislators legally bound to keep their campaign promises, let alone directives from the electorate. Yet representatives who veer too far from their constituents’ wishes presumably can face retaliation at the ballot box. While some legislators may fear retribution, and act accordingly, with overwhelming re-election rates, there is little evidence that voters effectively punish “misbehaving” legislators except in the most extreme circumstances. Modern American legislators generally seek to have it both ways, claiming one or the other motivation (exercising independent judgment or following constituents’ wishes), depending on which is most useful in a particular context. When they agree with the polls of their constituents they trumpet the fact that they are doing their constituents’ bidding. But when they would prefer not to vote that way, whether for corrupt or principled reasons, they latch onto the wiggle room provided by the Burkean view. In many cases, representatives act neither according to the wishes nor the welfare of the people — neither as delegate, nor true trustee.
A third possible role of representatives is that of a reliable representative of their party and its platform. This view is rather unpopular in the US but commonplace in multi-party democracies. Indeed, in some modern democracies, using what is known as “party list” voting systems, voters do not even see the names of individual candidates on the ballot, but instead simply select a party preference. This is intended to move representation from the realm of personality to that of policy and party manifesto. An individual representative exercising independent judgment, or the wishes of constituents as revealed in a poll, under this system, could be seen as undermining its integrity. Many of the concepts that fit under the umbrella term “representative” are mutually exclusive, and politicians typically pick the meaning that fits their needs.
Layers of Representation
Political representatives speak or take actions for other people. Electoral democracies have more layers of representation than we usually think about. Every society restricts voting eligibility (at a minimum, excluding children and “foreigners”), such that some residents who will be subject to the laws get no vote. The whole society, including children and ineligible residents (not to mention other species) are represented by eligible voters. That portion of eligible voters who get registered to vote, represent all those who are eligible, including those who are unregistered. Those registered voters who actually participate in a given election are thought of as representing all voters (as in “the voters approved proposition X”). The decisions of the majority winning faction in the election (or the largest minority in a multi-choice plurality election) is said to represent the will of the voters — or tracing back along the line, “the will of the people,” though it is usually in reality a relatively small subset of all people. If the election is for a legislature, the winners may actually only represent a tiny percentage — the winning faction of the participating portion of the registered, eligible members of the full community of residents — but nominally represent all of the people.
We are accustomed to referring to the person elected from our district as “our representative,” even if we voted against him or her. Indeed, this “representative” may be working in direct contradiction to every policy preference we have. This is an almost Orwellian twisting of the meaning of the word. If this person does not in fact represent my views or interests, and I did not approve of this person’s selection, it would be more accurate to say that I do not have an actual representative in the legislature. I am deemed to be “represented,” or giving consent to the government, even if the party I supported is in a minority in government and I abhor all policies enacted by my government. Even if I despised all of the nominated candidates on the ballot and voted for the least terrible to limit harm, or didn’t vote at all — I am still deemed to be “represented.” By applying the title “representative” the system masks the fact that most people have no actual representation in our legislative bodies.
These unrepresentative elected officials are accepted as our “representatives” because those are the rules passed down from previous generations. By participating in an election we are thought to be tacitly accepting the outcome and the designation of an unrepresentative winner as our representative. And if we don’t participate in the election, we are also deemed to be tacitly accepting the election outcome — as the saying goes, ”you have no right to complain if you didn’t vote.” So the focus turns to how we might improve the representativeness of our representatives through improving the election process — or replacing it. A key aspect of sortition is that it is not the individual members of the deliberative body who are individually “representatives.” Each individual member has no specific constituency. It is the body as a whole that represents the population as a whole.