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Political Representation

Representative Democracy And Electoral Engineering

In practice, however, these views failed to prevent those in the American colonies without actual representation in parliament to formulate the revolutionary slogan "taxation without representation is tyranny." The constitutions of these colonies and the new American republic affirmed that only election by individuals produces real accountability, and guarantees that representatives will in fact act in the interest of their constituencies. James Madison, in part following Montesquieu, gave definitive expression to the rationales for representative democracy. First through representative institutions democracy can be extended over a much greater territory and population than had been thought possible until this time. This practice has several advantages, including the likelihood that the representatives would be superior to their constituencies in judgment, knowledge, and such skills as public speaking and negotiation.

Further Madison claims, in "The Federalist No. 10" (1787), the effect of a representative legislature would be to "refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations" (p. 409). Representative, as opposed to directly participatory, institutions provide more continuity and stability, as representative bodies are less likely than the people to act on sudden changes of opinion. Through the new science of electoral engineering a representative government can be made to aim more reliably at a general good that encompasses the interests and preferences of many, more reliably than if all individuals in the people were polled directly. In "The Federalist No. 51" (1788), Madison says a multiplicity of overlapping and opposed constituencies, resulting from divided government and federalism, would make majority domination less likely "by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable" (p. 166). Madison hoped that such institutions would reduce the importance of personal, that is, patron-client, ties between electors and their representatives. Such corruption was endemic in early parliamentary politics, and broad programmatic policies often suffered as a result.

The triumph of this view was so complete in the minds of democratic theorists by the mid-nineteenth century that, in Considerations on Representative Government (1862), John Stuart Mill could simply state it as matter of course, that "the only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state in one in which the whole people participate.… But since all cannot, in a community exceeding a small town, participate personally in any but very minor portions of the public business, it follows that the ideal type of a perfect government must be representative" (p. 350).

The effects of the highly complex set of representative institutions in democracies have come to light only through experience. There is a wealth of examples, however, as elections are the primary source of government legitimacy in the world of the early twenty-first century, so much so that even dictators and ruling parties in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have used elections to fashion themselves as "representative." While corporatist forms of representation without direct electoral connections survived into the twentieth century in places as varied as Germany in the 1930s to Sweden in the 1970s, direct election of representatives by individuals aggregated into constituencies formed on a territorial basis is now the primary connection between citizens and their governments.

The analysis of representative institutions has yielded real advances in the knowledge of democratic politics. In systems where voters chose from among individually named candidates, the personal relation between the candidate and constituents will matter a great deal more than in systems where voters choose from among parties and the lists of candidates associated with them. Maurice Duverger formulated a set of propositions that outline the effect of district size on the political system as a whole. A first-past-the-post electoral system, in which districts elect a single member by plurality vote, tends to produce a two-party system, while a system in which districts elect multiple members simultaneously tends to produce a multiparty system. While there are exceptions to these claims, a set of refined propositions has been developed to account for most cases. That there is ample, if only tacit, knowledge of the workings of representative institutions is also demonstrated by the various successful attempts to manipulate the electoral rules to achieving system-wide results. Possible manipulations, corrupt and salutary, include denying or ensuring minority representation, unifying divergent political interests into a few parties, and providing proportional representation to a wide variety of political positions. Thomas Hare developed a system of proportional representation called the single transferable vote, which is widely viewed to be the fairest, in that every individual's vote will count toward the electoral outcome. One puzzle that appears to outrun the ability of political scientists to illuminate, however, is why individuals vote at all. The irony of representation is that it allows the expansion of democracies over such large numbers that the likelihood of any single individual's vote being the tie-breaker is so infinitesimal that there seems to be no instrumental reason to vote. With or without large voter turnouts, however, the representative structure continues to confer and confirm the legitimacy of most modern governments.



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——. "Speech at the Conclusion on the Poll, 3 November 1774." In The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Vol III: Party, Parliament, and the American War, 1774–1780, edited by Paul Langford, 63–70. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

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Duverger, Maurice. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. Translated by Barbara and Robert North. New York: Wiley, 1954.

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——. "The Federalist No. 51." In The Federalist with Letters of "Brutus," by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, edited by Terence Ball, 251–255. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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Cox, Gary W. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World's Electoral Systems. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A useful introduction to both the scientific study and legislative practice of electoral engineering.

Kateb, George. "The Moral Distinctiveness of Representative Democracy." Ethics 91 (1981): 357–374. A defense against authoritarianism on the one hand and direct democracy on the other.

Manin, Bernard. The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A historical sketch, with particular attention to how representatives are distinguished from their constituents.

Mansbridge, Jane. "Rethinking Representation," American Political Science Review 97, no. 4 (2003): 515–538. Reviews forms of "virtual representation" in modern practice.

Monahan, Arthur P. Consent, Coercion, and Limit: The Medieval Origins of Parliamentary Democracy. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987. A thorough synthesis of the historical scholarship.

Pitkin, Hanna F. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. A historically illuminating conceptual and linguistic analysis; the classic theoretical work.

Hans von Rautenfeld

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPolitical Representation - Classical Consent, Medieval Corporatism And The Origin Of Political Representation, Representing The Rights And Interests Of Individuals