One of the most foundational assumptions behind modern democracy is that the elected officials somehow represent the interests of those who elected them.
Advocates for the political status quo flog this position repeatedly, claiming that taxation and the regulatory state are all morally legitimate because the voters are “represented.” Even conservatives, who often claim to be for “small government” often oppose radicalism of any kind — such as secession — on the grounds that political resistance movements such as the American Revolution are only acceptable when there is “taxation without representation.”The implication being that since the United States holds elections every now and then, no political action outside of voting — and maybe a little sign waving — is allowed.
This, position, however, rests on the idea that elected officials are truly representative. If taxation with representation makes government legitimate — as some argue — then we must first establish that the government’s claims of representation are believable.
On a theoretical level, Gerard Casey has already cast serious doubt on these claims. Casey draws on the work of Hanna Pitkin, who admits it is plausible that:
Perhaps representation in politics is only a fiction, a myth forming part of the folklore of our society. Or perhaps representation must be redefined to fit our politics; perhaps we must simply accept the fact that what we have been calling representative government is in reality just party competition for office.
After all, as Casey points out, representation in the private sector usually means there is an agent-principal relationship in which the agent is legally bound to attempt to represent the material interests of a clearly defined person or group of people. Clearly, this does not describe political representation. Not only is is unclear what the material interests of the voters — as a group — are, but the supposed agent in the relationship — the elected official — is not legally bound to represent the interests of the voters he supposedly represents.
To conclude therefore, that any specific voter has consented to, say, a tax increase because his “representative” approved it, is an extremely sketchy endeavor, at best.
Nor is there any reason for us to expect that such a scheme of representation could possibly be meaningful under modern conceptions of representative government and democracy. Neither the system itself, nor the sorts of people who run for office, give us any reason to believe in the viability of such a system.
Two Ways Representation Doesn’t Work
Specifically, there are two ways that real-world political representation doesn’t fit the population notions of how it all works.
First of all, even if a politicians wanted to faithfully represent the people within his constituency, this would be impossible. It is impossible because the politicians can’t know the views of the whole population of his constituency. And it’s impossible because the more diverse a constituency becomes, the more unlikely it is that any legislation can be crafted to serve the interests of all members of the constituency equally.
Secondly, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that political representatives even try to respond to the policy desires of the district voters. The idea that government coercion is made legitimate through political representation leans heavily on the idea that politicians adhere to a delegate model of political representation in which they try to advance or protect the interests of their constituents. Unfortunately, this is a bad assumption.
The Impossibility of Representing “the People”
Casey illustrates that even at a very basic level, political representation does not work on a theoretical level. But let us be “practical” types for a few minutes and imagine that we could, in theory, put together a constituency of people with similar economic, cultural, and religious interests. We could then at least entertain the idea that it might be possible to represent this group. That is, with a constituency that is highly homogeneous, we could at least make a claim that we can understand and pursue the interests of the group.
But even if this is our standard do such legislators even exist?
Limiting our analysis to the United States, we might find examples in some small, culturally homogeneous areas. This may be true at the level of a county commission or in the legislature of a small state like New Hampshire, where legislators represent only a few thousand people per district.
At the Congressional level, however, where a single district typically includes hundreds of thousands people, claims of homogeneity are obviously nonsense. And, the larger the constituency, the worse it gets. As Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer note in their book Sizing Up the Senate:
Large states … will encompass more political interests than small states, all other things being equal. … [A]lthough small population does not guarantee homogeneity, large population does result in heterogeneity.
It logically follows, then, that a more heterogeneous population is unlikely to have a political representative who actually shares many of their ideological views. In his book Congressional Representation and Constituents, Brian Frederick concludes:
[A]n expanding constituency size is not an insubstantial contribution to House members’ level of ideological divergence from their constituents. … In smaller, ideologically cohesive constituencies it is easier for legislators to satisfy the policy desires of the citizenry. The growth in House district populations seems to have increased the distance between the representative and constituents of the area of policy representations.
Consequently, it’s not surprising that once we get to the level of the US Senate, representatives show virtually no congruence with the ideologies of the people they’re supposed to represent. In his empirical study of representation, Michael Barber writes :
[S]enators’ preferences diverge dramatically from the preference of the average voter in their state. The degree of divergence is nearly as large as if voters were randomly assigned to a senator.
Naturally, this can be affected by factors other then mere heterogeneity of the population — such as the need to cultivate relationship with those who can provide campaign funds. Nevertheless, the impossibility of representing the interests of such a large population drives a legislator to pick and choose whose interests he decides to listen to. In the case of the Senate, Barber finds those who do get represented are often the constituents “who write checks and attend fundraisers.”
But it’s not necessary to conclude that legislators listen to wealthy donors for cynical reasons. Even if a Senator under these circumstances wanted to represent all five million of his constituents (as would be the case in a medium-sized state like Minnesota or Colorado) It’s important to reiterate that this is simply an impossible task under the delegate model of representation.1
Trustees Versus Delegates
Up to this point, we’ve been assuming that elected officials imagine themselves largely as delegates of the populations they represent. This, after all, is the assumption behind the basic framework of Madisonian political theory: that different socioeconomic and cultural groups will be represented in Congress by elected officials, and these different groups will pursue their own interests, thus providing checks and balances against each other.
But what if elected officials don’t view themselves this way?
What if they view themselves as trustees whose job it is to do what’s “best” for the people in their district regardless of what the voter preferences actually are?
Those who have worked with elected officials will see little novelty in this suggestion. If I may be permitted a personal anecdote, I will note that in my days working with state legislators, it was not uncommon to be told by a legislator that he or she was torn as to whether vote in a way “the voters want” or to do “the right thing.” The “right” thing, in the mind of a legislator, is simply that which comports to his or her personal ideology.
If the legislator chose to overrule what he or she perceived to be the opinion of “the people,” then at least onthat day, the legislator was acting as a trustee rather than as a delegate.
There a numerous studies suggesting that such behavior in hardly rare. The political science literature showing a disconnect between the votes of legislators and constituent opinion has been mounting for years. On particularly interesting study is a 2017 paper from John Matsusake in which he concluded:
[W]hen legislator preferences differed from district opinion on an issue, legislators voted congruent with district opinion only 29 percent of the time. The data do not show a reliable connection between congruence and competitive election, term limits, campaign contributions, or media attention. The evidence is most consistent with the assumption of citizen-candidate model that legislators vote their own preferences.
There is, of course, no such thing as a “district opinion,” but the general idea is clear enough: when confronted with how to vote on an issue, a legislator, at least in Matsusake’s study, usually votes according to his own ideological views — even when he suspects a majority of his own voters prefer otherwise.
While its certainly possible to defend legislators who vote according to personal principal on various grounds, we cannot also claim that this sort of governance is a “representative” system in line with popular notions of how political representation is equivalent to voter consent for various political agendas.
If elected officials are in the habit of voting to suit their own ideologies — even when it means overriding the ideological preferences of many voters — then its hard to see how we can also call this “representative” or a system that transmits “consent” from the voters to their political representatives.
And yet, in spite of all the evidence that elected officials neither know the preference of voters, nor vote in accordance with them, we continue to be told that governments must be respected and obeyed because they have legitimacy granted to them by the fact they are “democratic” and “representative.”
For centuries, this myth of representation has served to quash opposition to government abuse, and to claim that submission to government is “voluntary.” It’s time to abandon the myths.
- 1.This is true even if the representative somehow perfectly represents the “median voter.” Political scientists often reduce a political constituency to a median voter in order to measure how well a politician represents the “typical” voter in his district. The “median voter”of course, does not really exist. In real life, the ideological views of most constituents and voters differ markedly from an imagined median voter who is basically just an aggregation of all voters. Most people, will not fit the description of the media, which means most people will not be represented, even if a legislator could figure out exactly what the “typical” political views are of his constituents.