Is Political Representation Actually Representative?

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One commonly cited benefit of the American republican system of government is the idea that the citizens are represented by their government. Our government, as Abraham Lincoln famously said, is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Every couple of years, then, citizens can cast a vote for politicians who will supposedly go to bat for them, ensuring that their preferences are communicated to the national decision-makers.

Unfortunately, under this system, it is possible for one’s interests and wishes to be completely unrepresented in the government through at least three scenarios. First, you might vote for a candidate based on his promises and then the candidate might fail to keep his promises and actually represent your preferences. Second, you might vote for somebody who would accurately represent your position, but this person might not win the election. Third, you might be unable to vote for either of the two candidates, because neither of them might adequately vocalize support of your interests.

In any of these cases, can it legitimately be said that you are actually being accurately and meaningfully represented by your supposed representatives? Some excuse could possibly made for the first scenario but in the second and third case, it is undoubtedly clear that your interests and wishes will not be represented in any fashion.

Thus, it is very likely, if not probable, that your values and preferences will not be accurately represented in the federal government. If you are a right-winger living in a leftist district or vice versa, you are probably all too aware of this type of situation. Furthermore, if we consider what it means to be a representative and then compare this concept to how our government works, it appears that almost no citizen is actually represented in the government in any meaningful way.

Accordingly, let us consider what it means to be a representative and then compare this concept to how our government actually works.

What is a Representative?

The Nidus Personal Planning Resource Centre, a Canadian non-profit organization, defines the decision-making role of a representative in the context of medical representation1:

“When making decisions on the adult’s [representee’s] behalf, a representative must still check with the adult first to determine the adult’s current wishes. If the current wishes cannot be determined or are not reasonable to follow, then any pre-expressed wishes must be followed – things that the adult said or wrote down when they were capable. If these are unknown, then decisions are made according to the adult’s values and beliefs. The adult is always at the centre of all decisions. Only as a last resort does a representative impose their opinion of what is best for the adult.”

Thus, it is clear that a representative’s primary duty is to uphold the wishes of the person(s) being represented. A representative should always consider how the representee would want to make decisions and should be so aligned with the wishes of the representee that any decision made by the representative could accurately be described as a decision of the party being represented.

Are Political Representatives Accountable for Their Decisions?

In his pamphlet “No Treason,” 19th Century political philosopher, Lysander Spooner, criticized the overreaching nature of the U.S. Congress, especially as it related to the idea of representation. He particularly emphasized the idea of accountability and responsibility for the actions taken by the representative. He writes:

“They [Congress] say they are only our servants, agents, attorneys, and representatives. But this declaration involves an absurdity, a contradiction. No man can be my servant, agent, attorney, or representative, and be, at the same time, uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me for his acts. It is of no importance that I appointed him, and put all power in his hands. If I made him uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me, he is no longer my servant, agent, attorney, or representative.”

Spooner insightfully points out that to accurately be called a representative, one must be accountable to and controllable by the party being represented. Now one might say that politicians are accountable to their constituents since they can be voted out of office. However, on an individual level, no one person can vote a congressman out of office. Even a large group, if they are the minority, cannot vote a congressman out of office. Thus, it seems that our representatives are only accountable to the majority, but even this accountability has its limitations.

For one thing, voting only takes place every couple of years, so congressmen can take numerous actions before any repercussions actually occur. Furthermore, the standard of representation is quite low, since congressmen are not expected to perfectly represent their constituent’s interests, but rather, they are merely expected to do a better job than the opposition.

Are Citizens Responsible for the Decisions of Political Representatives?

Spooner continues his argument by making the point that, in a legitimate situation of representation, the representee should be held responsible for any action(s) taken by the representative. If, for example, I were a crime boss and I authorized and instructed someone to commit a crime on my behalf, then I would be responsible and liable for that crime. Spooner explains this concept:

“If a man is my servant, agent, or attorney, I necessarily make myself responsible for all acts done within the limits of the power I have intrusted to him. If I have intrusted him, as my agent, with either absolute power, or any power at all, over the persons or properties of other men than myself, I thereby necessarily make myself responsible to those other persons for any injuries he may do them, so long as he acts within the limits of the power I have granted him. But no individual who may be injured in his person or property, by acts of Congress, can come to the individual electors, and hold them responsible for these acts of their so-called agents or representatives. This fact proves that these pretended agents of the people, of everybody, are really the agents of nobody.”

Could somebody attempt to hold a particular voter responsible for the actions of the American government? Possibly, but to do so would be erroneous since it would be far from apparent whether or not an individual voter actually supported, endorsed, or authorized a particular government action. As explained at the beginning of this post, many voters do not even support the elected officials who represent them, much less every single action undertaken by said official. Are these citizens really responsible for the decisions of their political respresentatives?

Conclusion

Based on the arguments so far, I would say that, if nothing else, the political power and influence of the individual in our political system is drastically overstated. While it might be possible to say that the majority is represented (and even to make this claim one would have to loosely define the term “represent”), it is difficult to say that individuals or minority groups in a region are actually represented in any meaningful way. If you do not appoint a representative, cannot control a representative, and are not responsible for the actions of a representative, then it seems that this representative is not a real representative. Therefore, rather than acting as representatives, we see most congressmen acting out of individual authority and interest. As Spooner concludes:

“If, then, nobody is individually responsible for the acts of Congress, the members of Congress are nobody’s agents. And if they are nobody’s agents, they are themselves individually responsible for their own acts, and for the acts of all whom they employ. And the authority they are exercising is simply their own authority.”

 

 

  1. Admittedly, Nidus created this definition for a medical context, not a political one. However, the primary characteristics of representatives transcend these occupational differences, meaning that all legitimate representatives abide by these particular guidelines. I think one could say that the foundational responsibilities of a medical representative are identical to those of any legitimate representative. Therefore, I found this definition to be helpful as far as going into detail and getting to the heart of what meaningful representation entails

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