Stanford University

Political Representation (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Political representation, on almost any account, will exhibit the following
five components:

  1. some party that is representing (the
    representative, an organization, movement, state agency, etc.);
  2. some party that is being represented (the
    constituents, the clients, etc.);
  3. something that is being represented (opinions,
    perspectives, interests, discourses, etc.); and
  4. a setting within which the activity of representation is
    taking place
    (the political context).
  5. something that is being left out (the opinions, interests, and perspectives not voiced).

Theories of political representation often begin by specifying the
terms for the first four components. For instance, democratic
theorists often limit the types of representatives being discussed to
formal representatives — that is, to representatives who hold
elected offices. One reason that the concept of representation remains
elusive is that theories of representation often apply only to
particular kinds of political actors within a particular context. How
individuals represent an electoral district is treated as distinct
from how social movements, judicial bodies, or informal organizations
represent. Consequently, it is unclear how different forms of
representation relate to each other. Andrew Rehfeld (2006) has
offered a general theory of representation which simply identifies
representation by reference to a relevant audience accepting a person
as its representative. One consequence of Rehfeld’s general approach
to representation is that it allows for undemocratic cases of

However, Rehfeld’s general theory of representation does not specify
what representative do or should do in order to be recognized as a
representative. And what exactly representatives do has been
a hotly contested issue. In particular, a controversy has raged over
whether representatives should act as delegates
or trustees.

1.1 Delegate vs. Trustee

Historically, the theoretical literature on political representation
has focused on whether representatives should act as delegates
or as trustees. Representatives who are delegates simply
follow the expressed preferences of their constituents. James Madison
(1787–8) is one of the leading historical figures who articulated a
delegate conception of representation. Trustees are representatives who
follow their own understanding of the best action to pursue. Edmund
Burke (1790) is famous for arguing that

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different
and hostile interests, which interest each must maintain, as an agent
and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a
deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the
whole… You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him
he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament

The delegate and the trustee conception of political
representation place competing and contradictory demands on the
behavior of representatives. Delegate conceptions of representation
require representatives to follow their constituents’
preferences, while trustee conceptions require representatives to
follow their own judgment about the proper course of action. Any
adequate theory of representation must grapple with these contradictory

Famously, Hanna Pitkin argues that theorists should not try to
reconcile the paradoxical nature of the concept of representation.
Rather, they should aim to preserve this paradox by recommending that
citizens safeguard the autonomy of both the representative and of
those being represented. The autonomy of the representative is
preserved by allowing them to make decisions based on his or her
understanding of the represented’s interests (the trustee conception
of representation). The autonomy of those being represented is
preserved by having the preferences of the represented influence
evaluations of representatives (the delegate conception of
representation). Representatives must act in ways that safeguard the
capacity of the represented to authorize and to hold their
representatives accountable and uphold the capacity of the
representative to act independently of the wishes of the

Objective interests are the key for determining whether the autonomy of
representative and the autonomy of the represented have been breached.
However, Pitkin never adequately specifies how we are to identify
constituents’ objective interests. At points, she implies that
constituents should have some say in what are their objective
interests, but ultimately she merely shifts her focus away from this
paradox to the recommendation that representatives should be evaluated
on the basis of the reasons they give for disobeying the preferences of
their constituents. For Pitkin, assessments about representatives will
depend on the issue at hand and the political environment in which a
representative acts. To understand the multiple and conflicting
standards within the concept of representation is to reveal the
futility of holding all representatives to some fixed set of
guidelines. In this way, Pitkin concludes that standards for evaluating
representatives defy generalizations. Moreover, individuals, especially
democratic citizens, are likely to disagree deeply about what
representatives should be doing.

1.2 Pitkin’s Four Views of Representation

Pitkin offers one of the most comprehensive discussions of the
concept of political representation, attending to its contradictory
character in her The Concept of Representation. This classic
discussion of the concept of representation is one of the most
influential and oft-cited works in the literature on political
representation. (For a discussion of her influence, see Dovi 2016). Adopting a Wittgensteinian approach to language, Pitkin
maintains that in order to understand the concept of political
representation, one must consider the different ways in which the term
is used. Each of these different uses of the term provides a different
view of the concept. Pitkin compares the concept of representation to
“ a rather complicated, convoluted, three–dimensional
structure in the middle of a dark enclosure.” Political theorists
provide “flash-bulb photographs of the structure taken from
different angles” [1967, 10]. More specifically, political
theorists have provided four main views of the concept of
representation. Unfortunately, Pitkin never explains how these
different views of political representation fit together. At times, she
implies that the concept of representation is unified. At other times,
she emphasizes the conflicts between these different views, e.g. how
descriptive representation is opposed to accountability. Drawing on her
flash-bulb metaphor, Pitkin argues that one must know the context in
which the concept of representation is placed in order to determine its
meaning. For Pitkin, the contemporary usage of the term “representation” can signficantly change its meaning.

For Pitkin, disagreements about representation can be partially
reconciled by clarifying which view of representation is being invoked.
Pitkin identifies at least four different views of representation:
formalistic representation, descriptive representation, symbolic
representation, and substantive representation. (For a brief
description of each of these views, see chart below.) Each view
provides a different approach for examining representation. The
different views of representation can also provide different standards
for assessing representatives. So disagreements about what
representatives ought to be doing are aggravated by the fact that
people adopt the wrong view of representation or misapply the standards
of representation. Pitkin has in many ways set the terms of
contemporary discussions about representation by providing this
schematic overview of the concept of political representation.

1. Formalistic Representation:

  • Brief Description. The institutional
    arrangements that precede and initiate representation. Formal
    representation has two dimensions: authorization and accountability.

  • Main Research Question. What is the
    institutional position of a representative?

  • Implicit Standards for Evaluating Representatives. None.


  • Brief Description. The means by which a
    representative obtains his or her standing, status, position or

  • Main Research Questions. What is the process by
    which a representative gains power (e.g., elections) and what are the
    ways in which a representative can enforce his or her decisions?

  • Implicit Standards for Evaluating
    . No standards for assessing how well a
    representative behaves. One can merely assess whether a
    representative legitimately holds his or her position.


  • Brief Description. The ability of constituents
    to punish their representative for failing to act in
    accordance with their wishes (e.g. voting an elected official out of
    office) or the responsiveness of the representative to the

  • Main Research Question. What are the
    sanctioning mechanisms available to constituents? Is the
    representative responsive towards his or her constituents’

  • Implicit Standards for Evaluating
    . No standards for assessing how well a
    representative behaves. One can merely determine whether a
    representative can be sanctioned or has been responsive.

2. Symbolic Representation:

  • Brief Description. The ways that a
    representative “stands for” the represented — that
    is, the meaning that a representative has for those being

  • Main Research Question. What kind of response
    is invoked by the representative in those being represented?

  • Implicit Standards for Evaluating
    . Representatives are assessed by the degree
    of acceptance that the representative has among the represented.

3. Descriptive Representation:

  • Brief Description. The extent to which a
    representative resembles those being represented.

  • Main Research Question. Does the representative
    look like, have common interests with, or share certain experiences
    with the represented?

  • Implicit Standards for Evaluating
    . Assess the representative by the accuracy
    of the resemblance between the representative and the

4. Substantive Representation:

  • Brief Description. The activity of
    representatives—that is, the actions taken on behalf of, in
    the interest of, as an agent of, and as a substitute for the

  • Main Research Question. Does the representative
    advance the policy preferences that serve the interests of the

  • Implicit Standards for Evaluating
    . Assess a representative by the extent to
    which policy outcomes advanced by a representative serve “the
    best interests” of their constituents.

One cannot overestimate the extent to which Pitkin has shaped
contemporary understandings of political representation, especially
among political scientists. For example, her claim that descriptive
representation opposes accountability is often the starting point for
contemporary discussions about whether marginalized groups need
representatives from their groups.

Similarly, Pitkin’s conclusions about the paradoxical nature of
political representation support the tendency among contemporary
theorists and political scientists to focus on formal procedures of
authorization and accountability (formalistic representation). In
particular, there has been a lot of theoretical attention paid to the
proper design of representative institutions (e.g. Amy 1996; Barber,
2001; Christiano 1996; Guinier 1994). This focus is certainly
understandable, since one way to resolve the disputes about what
representatives should be doing is to “let the people
decide.” In other words, establishing fair procedures for
reconciling conflicts provides democratic citizens one way to settle
conflicts about the proper behavior of representatives. In this way,
theoretical discussions of political representation tend to depict
political representation as primarily a principal-agent relationship.
The emphasis on elections also explains why discussions about the
concept of political representation frequently collapse into
discussions of democracy. Political representation is understood as a
way of 1) establishing the legitimacy of democratic institutions and 2)
creating institutional incentives for governments to be responsive to

David Plotke (1997) has noted that this emphasis on mechanisms of
authorization and accountability was especially useful in the context
of the Cold War. For this understanding of political representation
(specifically, its demarcation from participatory democracy) was
useful for distinguishing Western democracies from Communist
countries. Those political systems that held competitive elections were considered
to be democratic (Schumpeter 1976). Plotke questions whether such a distinction
continues to be useful. Plotke recommends that we broaden the scope
of our understanding of political representation to encompass interest
representation and thereby return to debating what is the proper
activity of representatives. Plotke’s insight into why traditional
understandings of political representation resonated prior to the end
of the Cold War suggests that modern understandings of political
representation are to some extent contingent on political realities.
For this reason, those who attempt to define political representation
should recognize how changing political realities can affect
contemporary understandings of political representation. Again,
following Pitkin, ideas about political representation appear contingent on existing political practices of representation. Our understandings of representation are inextricably
shaped by the manner in which people are currently being
represented. For an informative discussion of the history of
representation, see Monica Brito Vieira and David
Runican’s Representation.

As mentioned earlier, theoretical discussions of political
representation have focused mainly on the formal procedures of
authorization and accountability within nation states, that is, on
what Pitkin called formalistic representation. However, such a focus
is no longer satisfactory due to international and domestic political
transformations. [For an extensive discussion of international and
domestic transformations, see Mark Warren and Dario Castioglione
(2004).] Increasingly international, transnational and
non-governmental actors play an important role in advancing public
policies on behalf of democratic citizens—that is, acting as
representatives for those citizens. Such actors “speak
for,” “act for” and can even “stand for”
individuals within a nation-state. It is no longer desirable to limit
one’s understanding of political representation to elected officials
within the nation-state. After all, increasingly state “contract out” important responsibilities to non-state actors, e.g. environmental regulation. As a result, elected officials do not necessarily
possess “the capacity to act,” the capacity that Pitkin uses to identify who is a representative. So, as the powers of nation-state have been disseminated to
international and transnational actors, elected representatives are not necessarily the agents who determine how policies are implemented. Given these changes, the traditional focus of political
representation, that is, on elections within nation-states, is
insufficient for understanding how public policies are being made and
implemented. The complexity of modern representative processes and the multiple
locations of political power suggest that contemporary notions of
accountability are inadequate. Grant and Keohane (2005) have recently
updated notions of accountability, suggesting that the scope of
political representation needs to be expanded in order to reflect
contemporary realities in the international arena. Michael Saward
(2009) has proposed an innovative type of criteria that should be
used for evaluating non-elective representative claims. John Dryzek
and Simon Niemayer(2008) has proposed an alternative conception of
representation, what he calls discursive representation, to reflect
the fact that transnational actors represent discourses, not real
people. By discourses, they mean “a set of categories and concepts
embodying specific assumptions, judgments, contentions, dispositions,
and capabilities.” The concept of discursive representation can
potentially redeem the promise of deliberative democracy when the
deliberative participation of all affected by a collective decision is

Domestic transformations also reveal the need to update contemporary
understandings of political representation. Associational life —
social movements, interest groups, and civic associations—is
increasingly recognized as important for the survival of
representative democracies. The extent to which interest groups write
public policies or play a central role in implementing and regulating
policies is the extent to which the division between formal and
informal representation has been blurred. The fluid relationship
between the career paths of formal and informal representatives also
suggests that contemporary realities do not justify focusing mainly on
formal representatives. Mark Warren’s concept of citizen
representatives (2008) opens up a theoretical framework for exploring
how citizens represent themselves and serve in representative

Given these changes, it is necessary to revisit our conceptual
understanding of political representation, specifically of democratic
representation. For as Jane Mansbridge has recently noted, normative
understandings of representation have not kept up with recent
empirical research and contemporary democratic practices. In her
important article “Rethinking Representation” Mansbridge
identifies four forms of representation in modern democracies:
promissory, anticipatory, gyroscopic and surrogacy. Promissory
representation is a form of representation in which representatives
are to be evaluated by the promises they make to constituents during
campaigns. Promissory representation strongly resembles Pitkin’s
discussion of formalistic representation. For both are primarily
concerned with the ways that constituents give their consent to the
authority of a representative. Drawing on recent empirical work,
Mansbridge argues for the existence of three additional forms of
representation. In anticipatory representation, representatives focus
on what they think their constituents will reward in the next election
and not on what they promised during the campaign of the previous
election. Thus, anticipatory representation challenges those who
understand accountability as primarily a retrospective activity. In
gyroscopic representation, representatives “look within”
to derive from their own experience conceptions of interest and
principles to serve as a basis for their action. Finally, surrogate
representation occurs when a legislator represents constituents
outside of their districts. For Mansbridge, each of these different
forms of representation generates a different normative criterion by
which representatives should be assessed. All four forms of
representation, then, are ways that democratic citizens can be
legitimately represented within a democratic regime. Yet none of the
latter three forms representation operates through the formal
mechanisms of authorization and accountability. Recently, Mansbridge
(2009) has gone further by suggesting that political science has
focused too much on the sanctions model of accountability and that
another model, what she calls the selection model, can be more
effective at soliciting the desired behavior from representatives.
According to Mansbridge, a sanction model of accountability presumes
that the representative has different interests from the represented
and that the represented should not only monitor but reward the good
representative and punish the bad. In contrast, the selection model
of accountability presumes that representatives have self-motivated
and exogenous reasons for carrying out the represented’s wishes. In
this way, Mansbridge broadens our understanding of accountability to
allow for good representation to occur outside of formal sanctioning

Mansbridge’s rethinking of the meaning of representation holds an
important insight for contemporary discussions of democratic
representation. By specifying the different forms of representation
within a democratic polity, Mansbridge teaches us that we should refer
to the multiple forms of democratic
representation. Democratic representation should not be conceived as a
monolithic concept. Moreover, what is abundantly clear is that
democratic representation should no longer be treated as consisting
simply in a relationship between elected officials and constituents
within her voting district. Political representation should no longer
be understood as a simple principal-agent relationship. Andrew Rehfeld
has gone farther, maintaining that political representation should no
longer be territorially based. In other words, Rehfeld (2005) argues
that constituencies, e.g. electoral districts, should not be
constructed based on where citizens live.

Lisa Disch (2011) also
complicates our understanding of democratic representation as a
principal-agent relationship by uncovering a dilemma that arises
between expectations of democratic responsiveness to constituents and
recent empirical findings regarding the context dependency of
individual constituents’ preferences. In response to this dilemma,
Disch proposes a mobilization conception of political representation
and develops a systemic understanding of reflexivity as the measure of
its legitimacy.

By far, one of the most important shifts in the literature on representation has been the “constructivist turn.” Constructivist approaches to representation emphasize the representative’s role in creating and framing the identities and claims of the represented. Here Michael Saward’s The Representative Claim is exemplary. For Saward, representation entails a series of relationships: “A maker of representations (M) puts forward a subject (S) which stands for an object (O) which is related to a referent (R) and is offered to an audience (A)” (2006, 302). Instead of presuming a pre-existing set of interests of the represented that representatives “bring into” the political arena, Saward stresses how representative claim‐making is a “deeply culturally inflected practice.” Saward explicitly denies that theorists can know what are the interests of the represented. For this reason, the represented should have the ultimate say in judging the claims of the representative. The task of the representative is to create claims that will resonate with appropriate audiences.

Saward therefore does not evaluate representatives by the extent to which they advance the preferences or interests of the represented. Instead he focuses on the institutional and collective conditions in which claim-making takes place. The constructivist turn examines the conditions for claim-making, not the activities of particular representatives.

Saward’s “constructivist turn” has generated a new research direction for both political theorists and empirical scientists. For example, Lisa Disch (2015) considers whether the constructivist turn is a “normative dead” end, that is, whether the epistemological commitments of constructivism that deny the ability to identify interests will undermine the normative commitments to democratic politics. Disch offers an alternative approach, what she calls “the citizen standpoint”. This standpoint does not mean taking at face value whomever or whatever citizens regard as representing them. Rather, it is “an epistemological and political achievement that does not exist spontaneously but develops out of the activism of political movements together with the critical theories and transformative empirical research to which they give rise” (2015, 493). (For other critical engagements with Saward’s work, see Schaap et al, 2012 and Nässtrom, 2011).

There have been a number of important advances in theorizing the concept of
political representation. In particular, these advances call into
question the traditional way of thinking of political representation as
a principal-agent relationship. Most notably, Melissa Williams’
recent work has recommended reenvisioning the activity of
representation in light of the experiences of historically
disadvantaged groups. In particular, she recommends understanding
representation as “mediation.” In particular, Williams
(1998, 8) identifies three different dimensions of political life that
representatives must “mediate:” the dynamics of legislative
decision-making, the nature of legislator-constituent relations, and
the basis for aggregating citizens into representable constituencies.
She explains each aspect by using a corresponding theme (voice, trust,
and memory) and by drawing on the experiences of marginalized groups in
the United States. For example, drawing on the experiences of American
women trying to gain equal citizenship, Williams argues that
historically disadvantaged groups need a “voice” in
legislative decision-making. The “heavily deliberative”
quality of legislative institutions requires the presence of
individuals who have direct access to historically excluded

In addition, Williams explains how representatives need to mediate
the representative-constituent relationship in order to build
“trust.” For Williams, trust is the cornerstone for
democratic accountability. Relying on the experiences of
African-Americans, Williams shows the consistent patterns of betrayal
of African-Americans by privileged white citizens that give them good
reason for distrusting white representatives and the institutions
themselves. For Williams, relationships of distrust can be “at
least partially mended if the disadvantaged group is represented by its
own members”(1998, 14). Finally, representation involves
mediating how groups are defined. The boundaries of groups according to
Williams are partially established by past experiences — what
Williams calls “memory.” Having certain shared patterns of
marginalization justifies certain institutional mechanisms to guarantee

Williams offers her understanding of representation as mediation as a
supplement to what she regards as the traditional conception of
liberal representation. Williams identifies two strands in liberal
representation. The first strand she describes as the “ideal of
fair representation as an outcome of free and open elections in which
every citizen has an equally weighted vote” (1998, 57). The
second strand is interest-group pluralism, which Williams describes as
the “theory of the organization of shared social interests with
the purpose of securing the equitable representation … of those
groups in public policies” (ibid.). Together, the two
strands provide a coherent approach for achieving fair representation,
but the traditional conception of liberal representation as made up of
simply these two strands is inadequate. In particular, Williams
criticizes the traditional conception of liberal representation for
failing to take into account the injustices experienced by
marginalized groups in the United States. Thus, Williams expands
accounts of political representation beyond the question of
institutional design and thus, in effect, challenges those who
understand representation as simply a matter of formal procedures of
authorization and accountability.

Another way of reenvisioning representation was offered by
Nadia Urbinati (2000, 2002). Urbinati argues for understanding
representation as advocacy. For Urbinati, the point
of representation should not be the aggregation of interests, but the
preservation of disagreements necessary for preserving liberty.
Urbinati identifies two main features of advocacy: 1) the
representative’s passionate link to the electors’ cause and 2) the
representative’s relative autonomy of judgment. Urbinati emphasizes
the importance of the former for motivating representatives to
deliberate with each other and their constituents. For Urbinati the
benefit of conceptualizing representation as advocacy is that it
improves our understanding of deliberative democracy. In particular,
it avoids a common mistake made by many contemporary deliberative
democrats: focusing on the formal procedures of deliberation at the
expense of examining the sources of inequality within civil society,
e.g. the family. One benefit of Urbinati’s understanding of
representation is its emphasis on the importance of
opinion and consent formation. In particular, her agonistic conception
of representation highlights the importance of disagreements
and rhetoric to the procedures, practices, and ethos of democracy. Her
account expands the scope of theoretical discussions of representation
away from formal procedures of authorization to the deliberative and
expressive dimensions of representative institutions. In this way,
her agonistic understanding of representation provides a theoretical tool to those who wish to explain how
non-state actors “represent.”

Other conceptual advancements have helped clarify the meaning
of particular aspects of representation. For instance, Andrew
Rehfeld (2009) has argued that we need to disaggregate the
delegate/trustee distinction. Rehfeld highlights how representatives
can be delegates and trustees in at least three different ways. For
this reason, we should replace the traditional delegate/trustee
distinction with three distinctions (aims, source of judgment, and
responsiveness). By collapsing these three different ways of being
delegates and trustees, political theorists and political scientists
overlook the ways in which representatives are often partial delegates
and partial trustees.

Other political theorists have asked us to rethink central aspects of
our understanding of democratic representation. In Inclusion and
Iris Marion Young asks us to rethink the importance of
descriptive representation. Young stresses that attempts to include more
voices in the political arena can suppress other voices. She
illustrates this point using the example of a Latino representative
who might inadvertently represent straight Latinos at the expense of
gay and lesbian Latinos (1986, 350). For Young, the suppression of
differences is a problem for
all representation (1986, 351). Representatives of large
districts or of small communities must negotiate the difficulty of one
person representing many. Because such a difficulty is constitutive of
representation, it is unreasonable to assume that representation
should be characterized by a “relationship of identity.”
The legitimacy of a representative is not primarily a function of his
or her similarities to the represented. For Young, the representative
should not be treated as a substitute for the represented.
Consequently, Young recommends reconceptualizing representation as
a differentiated relationship (2000, 125–127; 1986, 357).
There are two main benefits of Young’s understanding of
representation. First, her understanding of representation encourages
us to recognize the diversity of those being represented. Second, her
analysis of representation emphasizes the importance of recognizing
how representative institutions include as well as they
exclude. Democratic citizens need to remain vigilant about the ways in
which providing representation for some groups comes at the expense of
excluding others. Building on Young’s insight, Suzanne Dovi (2009) has
argued that we should not conceptualize representation simply in terms
of how we bring marginalized groups into democratic politics; rather,
democratic representation can require limiting the influence of
overrepresented privileged groups.

Moreover, based on this way of understanding political
representation, Young provides an alterative account of democratic
representation. Specifically, she envisions democratic representation
as a dynamic process, one that moves between moments of authorization
and moments of accountability (2000, 129). It is the movement between
these moments that makes the process “democratic.” This
fluidity allows citizens to authorize their representatives and for
traces of that authorization to be evident in what the
representatives do and how representatives are held accountable. The
appropriateness of any given representative is therefore partially
dependent on future behavior as well as on his or her past
relationships. For this reason, Young maintains that evaluation of this
process must be continuously “deferred.” We must assess
representation dynamically, that is, assess the whole ongoing processes
of authorization and accountability of representatives. Young’s
discussion of the dynamic of representation emphasizes the ways in
which evaluations of representatives are incomplete, needing to
incorporate the extent to which democratic citizens need to suspend their
evaluations of representatives and the extent to which representatives
can face unanticipated issues.

Another insight about democratic representation that comes from the
literature on descriptive representation is the importance of
contingencies. Here the work of Jane Mansbridge on descriptive
representation has been particularly influential. Mansbridge
recommends that we evaluate descriptive representatives by contexts
and certain functions. More specifically, Mansbridge (1999, 628)
focuses on four functions and their related contexts in which
disadvantaged groups would want to be represented by someone who
belongs to their group. Those four functions are “(1) adequate
communication in contexts of mistrust, (2) innovative thinking in
contexts of uncrystallized, not fully articulated, interests, …
(3) creating a social meaning of ‘ability to rule’ for
members of a group in historical contexts where the ability has been
seriously questioned and (4) increasing the polity’s de facto
legitimacy in contexts of past discrimination.” For Mansbridge,
descriptive representatives are needed when marginalized groups
distrust members of relatively more privileged groups and when
marginalized groups possess political preferences that have not been
fully formed. The need for descriptive representation is contingent on
certain functions.

Mansbridge’s insight about the contingency of descriptive
representation suggests that at some point descriptive representatives
might not be necessary. However, she doesn’t specify how we are to
know if interests have become crystallized or trust has formed to the
point that the need for descriptive representation would be
obsolete. Thus, Mansbridge’s discussion of descriptive representation
suggests that standards for evaluating representatives are fluid and
flexible. For an interesting discussion of the problems with unified
or fixed standards for evaluating Latino representatives, see
Christina Beltran’s The Trouble with Unity.

Mansbridge’s discussion of descriptive representation points to
another trend within the literature on political representation
— namely, the trend to derive normative accounts of
representation from the representative’s function. Russell Hardin (2004) captured
this trend most clearly in his position that “if we wish to
assess the morality of elected officials, we must understand their
function as our representatives and then infer how they can fulfill
this function.” For Hardin, only an empirical explanation of the
role of a representative is necessary for determining what a
representative should be doing. Following Hardin, Suzanne Dovi (2007) identifies three democratic standards for evaluating the
performance of representatives: those of fair-mindedness,
critical trust building, and good gate-keeping. In Ruling Passions, Andrew
Sabl (2002) links the proper behavior of representatives to their
particular office. In particular, Sabl focuses on three offices:
senator, organizer and activist. He argues that the same standards
should not be used to evaluate these different offices. Rather, each
office is responsible for promoting democratic constancy, what Sabl
understands as “the effective pursuit of interest.” Sabl
(2002) and Hardin (2004) exemplify the trend to tie the standards for
evaluating political representatives to the activity and office of
those representatives. “

There are three persistent problems associated with political
representation. Each of these problems identifies a future area of
investigation. The first problem is the proper institutional design for
representative institutions within democratic polities. The theoretical
literature on political representation has paid a lot of attention to
the institutional design of democracies. More specifically, political
theorists have recommended everything from proportional representation
(e.g. Guinier, 1994 and Christiano, 1996) to citizen juries (Fishkin,
1995). However, with the growing number of democratic states, we are
likely to witness more variation among the different forms of political
representation. In particular, it is important to be aware of how non-democratic and hybrid regimes can adopt representative institutions to consolidate their power over their citizens. There is likely to be much debate about the advantages
and disadvantages of adopting representative institutions.

This leads to a second future line of inquiry — ways in which
democratic citizens can be marginalized by representative institutions.
This problem is articulated most clearly by Young’s discussion of
the difficulties arising from one person representing many. Young
suggests that representative institutions can include the opinions,
perspectives and interests of some citizens at the expense of
marginalizing the opinions, perspectives and interests of others.
Hence, a problem with institutional reforms aimed at increasing the
representation of historically disadvantaged groups is that such
reforms can and often do decrease the responsiveness of
representatives. For instance, the creation of black districts has
created safe zones for black elected officials so that they are less
accountable to their constituents. Any decrease in accountability is
especially worrisome given the ways citizens are vulnerable to their
representatives. Thus, one future line of research is examining the
ways that representative institutions marginalize the interests,
opinions and perspectives of democratic citizens.

In particular, it is necessary for to acknowledge the biases of
representative institutions. While E. E. Schattschneider (1960) has long noted the
class bias of representative institutions, there is little discussion
of how to improve the political representation of the disaffected
— that is, the political representation of those citizens who do
not have the will, the time, or political resources to participate in
politics. The absence of such a discussion is particularly apparent in
the literature on descriptive representation, the area that is most
concerned with disadvantaged citizens. Anne Phillips (1995) raises the
problems with the representation of the poor, e.g. the inability to
define class, however, she argues for issues of class to be integrated
into a politics of presence. Few theorists have taken up
Phillip’s gauntlet and articulated how this integration of class
and a politics of presence is to be done. Of course, some have
recognized the ways in which interest groups, associations, and
individual representatives can betray the least well off (e.g.
Strolovitch, 2004). And some (Dovi, 2003) have argued that descriptive
representatives need to be selected based on their relationship to
citizens who have been unjustly excluded and marginalized by democratic
politics. However, it is unclear how to counteract the class bias that
pervades domestic and international representative institutions. It is
necessary to specify the conditions under which certain groups within a
democratic polity require enhanced representation. Recent empirical
literature has suggested that the benefits of having descriptive
representatives is by no means straightforward (Gay, 2002).

A third and final area of research involves the relationship between
representation and democracy. Historically, representation was
considered to be in opposition with democracy [See
Dahl (1989) for a historical overview of the concept of
representation]. When compared to the direct forms of democracy found
in the ancient city-states, notably Athens, representative institutions
appear to be poor substitutes for the ways that citizens actively ruled
themselves. Barber (1984) has famously argued that representative
institutions were opposed to strong democracy. In contrast, almost
everyone now agrees that democratic political institutions are
representative ones.

Bernard Manin (1997)reminds us that the Athenian Assembly, which
often exemplifies direct forms of democracy, had only limited powers.
According to Manin, the practice of selecting magistrates by lottery is
what separates representative democracies from so-called direct
democracies. Consequently, Manin argues that the methods of selecting
public officials are crucial to understanding what makes representative
governments democratic. He identifies four principles distinctive of
representative government: 1) Those who govern are appointed by
election at regular intervals; 2) The decision-making of those who
govern retains a degree of independence from the wishes of the
electorate; 3) Those who are governed may give expression to their
opinions and political wishes without these being subject to the
control of those who govern; and 4) Public decisions undergo the trial
of debate (6). For Manin, historical democratic practices hold
important lessons for determining whether representative institutions
are democratic.

While it is clear that representative institutions are vital
institutional components of democratic institutions, much more needs
to be said about the meaning of democratic representation. In
particular, it is important not to presume that all acts of
representation are equally democratic. After all, not all acts of
representation within a representative democracy are necessarily
instances of democratic representation. Henry Richardson (2002) has
explored the undemocratic ways that members of the bureaucracy can
represent citizens. [For a more detailed discussion of non-democratic
forms of representation, see Apter (1968). Michael Saward (2008) also
discusses how existing systems of political representation do not
necessarily serve democracy.] Similarly, it is unclear whether a
representative who actively seeks to dismantle democratic institutions
is representing democratically. Does democratic representation require
representatives to advance the preferences of democratic citizens or
does it require a commitment to democratic institutions? At this
point, answers to such questions are unclear. What is certain is that
democratic citizens are likely to disagree about what constitutes
democratic representation.

One popular approach to addressing the different and conflicting
standards used to evaluate representatives within democratic polities,
is to simply equate multiple standards with democratic ones. More
specifically, it is argued that democratic standards are pluralistic,
accommodating the different standards possessed and used by democratic
citizens. Theorists who adopt this approach fail to specify the proper
relationship among these standards. For instance, it is unclear how the
standards that Mansbridge identifies in the four different forms of
representation should relate to each other. Does it matter if
promissory forms of representation are replaced by surrogate forms of
representation? A similar omission can be found in Pitkin: although
Pitkin specifies there is a unified relationship among the different
views of representation, she never describes how the different views
interact. This omission reflects the lacunae in the literature about
how formalistic representation relates to descriptive and substantive
representation. Without such a specification, it is not apparent how
citizens can determine if they have adequate powers of authorization
and accountability.

Currently, it is not clear exactly what makes any given form of
representation consistent, let alone consonant, with democratic
representation. Is it the synergy among different forms or should we
examine descriptive representation in isolation to determine the ways
that it can undermine or enhance democratic representation? One
tendency is to equate democratic representation simply with the
existence of fluid and multiple standards. While it is true that the
fact of pluralism provides justification for democratic institutions as
Christiano (1996) has argued, it should no longer presumed that all
forms of representation are democratic since the actions of
representatives can be used to dissolve or weaken democratic
institutions. The final research area is to articulate the relationship
between different forms of representation and ways that these forms can
undermine democratic representation.

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