October 11th, 2011

The Myth of Political Representation

There exist within the prevailing political systems of our time certain lies which have so long been repeated as fact that they have become accepted as such. One is that the government operates with "the consent of the governed." Another is that there exists a "social contract" which justifies and/or requires certain government programs or policies.

A third one has received much attention of late, only due to superficial back and forth squabbling regarding how it is to be usurped and commandeered by whom. This myth is pervasive and profound, in that it lies at the very foundation of the structure upon which most governments currently rest. It is that one person, even if elected by a majority of them, can be a “representative” of a constituency of unique individuals. Representation is the open political secret of our day—the political version of adults going along with the Tooth Fairy ruse in order to fool the rising generation and continue the tradition.

Consider just one simple example that demonstrates the absurdity of claiming that representation works: a Democrat living in Provo, Utah—one of the locales with the highest Republican affiliation in the country. This individual is in the political minority, and almost all political leadership positions will be filled by Republicans. To say that he is “represented” by anybody in government, whether at the municipal, state, or even federal level, is laughable.

Even among members of the same party, substantial differences exist on important policy issues. Does one Republican legislator somehow represent people of drastically diverging opinion on any given issue? Or is the opposite clearly true, but we keep up the self-deceptive representation ruse in order to reassure ourselves that the government is us, and our collective actions through that government have moral sanction and the “consent of the governed?”

States around the country are going through the process of “redistricting” in light of updated census figures, in order to determine jurisdictional boundaries for legislative, school, and congressional districts. These are often very heated processes whereby leaders in competing political parties use whatever tools are at their disposal to increase their personal and party’s opportunity for retaining and gaining political strength by determining the best map.

In redistricting, lines are drawn and districts are created; from such is a “representative” elected. A person on one side of the road may have a certain legislator as his representative, and the neighbor across the street may have a different one altogether. People of common interest may have different districts through which to operate, and people of very diverging interest may be lumped together into one district with a single individual tasked with somehow representing the entire group.

Representation simply does not work; it is a logical impossibility. As such, the term “representation” in all its forms should, in the political realm, be discarded. As children growing up who learn that they have been lied to and the Tooth Fairy is in fact fictional, adults should come to realize that it is a myth to suppose that their diverse interests can, along with everybody else’s, somehow be represented by a single person.

What to call it instead? How about simply the winner of a popularity contest? For that is what politics is, and what elections boil down to. He who wins the most votes gets to wield political authority, voting according to his personal interests and beliefs, his alleged principles, or the majority opinion of his constituency. But he does not represent each person. If anything, he might represent the individuals who voted for him, but then what of those who voted for the other candidates? They effectively have no voice in government. Tell these people that they are being represented, and they will laugh in your face; the minority is keenly aware of the majority’s self-enabling myth.

In an 1807 letter to the Governor of Ohio, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” True enough, but the form of government both then and now renders that impossible. A noble ideal, but hardly practical within the construct of geography-based government that so predominantly exists today.

Utah offers another interesting example that demonstrates how representative government is simply about power and popularity. Due to an increasing population, Utah is getting a new, fourth congressional district. The lines have not yet even been drawn—meaning that nobody knows who will be a part of this district—and yet there are several candidates who are seeking to become the “representative” of an as-yet non-existent group of people. More correctly stated, then, these candidates are simply ramping up their campaigns to win the political popularity contest, the voters of which will be announced at a later date.

One might reasonably argue that the form of government we currently have is efficient, or beneficial, or better than legitimate alternatives. What cannot be reasonably argued, however, is that the claim of being a “representative” government is legitimate. Rather, our government operates on majoritarian control alone. Decisions are made by those who show up, it’s true, but they are made at the expense of whatever minority group that disagrees but is forced to be governed by a larger group of neighbors who outnumber them.

Democracy, whether called “representative” or direct, is simply gang rule—a political popularity contest where winner takes all, and the losers are sidelined with simplistic reassurances that they are being represented. It’s time we stopped clinging to an obvious myth.

6 Responses to “The Myth of Political Representation”

  1. Clumpy
    October 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    I love the idea of “proportional representation” for this reason. It has its own problems, but it’s a good way for allowing tiny, overlooked segments of the population their own say. It also forces overlooked issues into discussion.

  2. Shiloh Logan
    October 11, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    The only way “representation” can justifiably work is if the so-called “representative” actually represents something that is common (i.e. universal) to all of his/her constituency. The only universal principle between all people are what some call “natural” or “inalienable” rights.

    Our society, however, has so far dismissed any claim to natural and inalienable rights that representation is nothing but a farce. What is worse is that so-called “conservatives” today bend, distort, and misinterpret the process by which natural and inalienable rights were extrapolated through reason and logic. Today, we merely claim rights as what are enumerated in the Bill of Rights, and, as such, we paint ourselves into a legal positivist corner where government is our lord and master as it dictates who we are and what we do as accepted by society at large. When society dismisses both the principle and principal of government, that society becomes nothing more than a conventionalist mobocracy that only seeks to impose its will on the minority. In such a society, there is absolutely no true representation.

    Good post.

  3. JJL9
    October 11, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    I hate to have to argue what the definition of “is” is, but perhaps you are leaning a little too heavily on one particular definition of the term “represent” (or any of its derivative forms, eg representative, representation, etc…).

    By doing so, you have exposed the false premise that is perpetuated, but I think you have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

    The false premise is that your political representative will represent you by holding the views that you hold, by setting the policy that you would set, by opposing the policy that you would oppose, by sharing the principles that you espouse.

    That is the false premise.

    My theory is that our form of geography-based “representative” government is a good system for reasons in direct opposition to said false premise.

    Consider this. Most people that I come into contact with want their political representative to pursue their agenda at the expense of everyone else’s? Am I right?

    If I live in Utah, I want Orrin Hatch to allocate funds to developing water resources in Utah. If I live in rural Utah, I want Salt Lake County sliced and diced and divided amongst all of the districts, so that every district has rural influence. Why? Because rural issues are on my agenda, and I want my agenda to be pursued.

    If I live in Iowa I want the Federal Government to favor corn producers. I want corn subsidies. I want ethanol mandates. Right?

    And so on and so on and so on…

    I recently noticed a Facebook thread that was debating the reasons to re-elect Orrin Hatch (or not to). One person made the comment that we should re-elect Orrin Hatch because he is in the best position to benefit Utahns.

    My response was that I had no interest in electing someone that wants to benefit Utahns.

    So where am I going with all this? The founding fathers created a system at the federal level that involves elected representatives from each state in both houses of congress. The wisdom behind such a system is not that each representative can pass legislation that benefits their state, but just the opposite, that it will be less likely that any representative can pass legislation that benfits just their state.

    The system is not perfect. Far from it. But the hope is that when you bring represetatives in from all 50 states, no one state or small alliance of states can dominate the discussion. The hope is that perhaps the only legislation that should go forward is legislation that treats all states equally, that treats all citizens equally.

    Of course, this hope has been dashed over and over, but I argue that it is not the fault of “the system”, but rather of “the people” or “the governed”, who clamor for special favors, and encourage their representatives to pursue specialized agendas.

    How does all of this really relate to your argument? It’s like this. A politian that pursues a policy of absolute liberty and freedom is the only politician that truly represents all of his/her constituents. They don’t represent them because they ask their permission to pursue said policy. They don’t represent them because they somehow vote as all of their constituents vote (as you point out, that would not be possible). They represent them because they don’t allow the majority to take advantage of the minority. They don’t take opinion polls and change their positions based on popular opinoin.

    I’ve often said that as a Utahn I would be happy to elect a congressman to represent Utah that does not even live in Utah (if it were allowed), as long as that person understood basic princples of freedom and liberty. I don’t want a representative that is pushing Utah’s agenda. I want a representative that is pushing the agenda of liberty. A principled legislator would not vote differently depending on the state they come from.

    That representative will truly represent everyone.

    In theory our Constitutional protections are supposed to protect us from the “gang rule” that you speak of, from Democracy itself. From ourselves.

    Of course, the Constitution is just a piece of paper and if the great majority of Americans is willing to trample on it, then it no longer the Supreme Law of the Land.

  4. Jim Davis
    October 12, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    Great post!

    The idea that these elected officials represent a majority is a fallacy. Consider the two major parties. Each of their numbers are declining and as of two years ago each major party had less than a third of registered voters registered to their party (yet it’s always one of these minorities running the program). The number of eligible voters in 2008 was about 230 million and about half actually voted in national elections. In 2010 about a third voted in national elections. The numbers drop dramatically with state and municipal elections.

    Also, consider the fraction of a percent of individuals who participate in choosing party delegates who then choose which candidates will represent their party. If a certain party in an area is dominant then that means a few hundred people chose who will represent the hundreds of thousands of people in that area.

    “Representatives” and “Democracy” carry shallow meanings when we look at the data.

    On a related note- I was rooting for an Arizona state bill a few years ago which would have made it against the law to raise taxes unless 51% of eligible voters within a jurisdiction agreed to it. While it’s not a perfect system, it’s still better than 18% of people raising taxes for the other 82%. Unfortunately a small minority decided to make that bill fail. I would like to see it in Utah though.

  5. William
    October 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Interesting! So Connor, what would you do to make our system of governance better?

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    […] “social contract” took its place. Other justifications have been added, such as “representation,” “democracy,” and “you won’t become a productive member of society […]

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