There is little doubt that a modern democratic state requires representation – the vast numbers of people in a modern nation must have someone to “stand in” for them – to represent them – to other similarly large numbers of people, through their own representatives. People in modern nations are supposed to be assured of representation by the process of electing representatives. Electoral representative systems are the means by which representatives are motivated by and informed of the public will. The representative wants access to participation in political power, and so will, in theory, behave in a manner consistent with the desires of the majority of his or her electorate. When the representative fails in this respect, the public does not reelect that representative. I think we can agree that this doesn’t really happen – in fact it has become painfully obvious. I mean literally, it’s killing us. So what’s the problem, and, more importantly, what’s the solution?
Problematic Mediating Factors
The problem is that there are mediating factors between the voting populace and their representation in a legislative assembly. The representative is supposed to represent the will» of the electorate, but the electorate has no pre-existing will or interests.
Hold on, that may be surprising to some of you. You might ask, don’t polls show what public opinion is on a regular basis? This is a common enough assumption, but you will find upon introspection of yourself that it’s not quite true. You may have been convinced to think one way before, but upon reading further, or being exposed to challenges to your belief, you have hopefully amended, however slightly, your beliefs and opinions in light of new information or considerations. So it is more generally. When poll-takers catch people and ask them their off-the-cuff opinions, they get pretty stupid nonsense. This is because no human being can form an informed opinion in the absence of others. Hence, many contemporary democratic theorists have come to realize the centrality of deliberation to the formation of both individual as well as common opinion. In a democracy, the results of this deliberation become the people’s will (or interests).
The public will or interest is created through the democratic organizational procedures that result in voting for one policy, representative, or officer over another. Ideally, the public will is generated through general political deliberations that result in the formation of a majority around a single choice or set of choices. However, the electoral public is not already organized into good deliberative structures. Once, perhaps, political structures (like the New England township) as well as social and cultural structures (the small community) encouraged informal public deliberations as a matter of course in daily life. Today, though, we are each alone staring at the sparkling television spectacle, and what passes for political deliberations there is about the stupidest thing imaginable.
So the public is generally not organized for the deliberative formation of policy. And without such organization, people are, on the one hand, not much apt to actually make electoral choices, and on the other hand, not capable of communicating their will or interests to the representative. The first is the result of collective demobilization of voters, which shows up as apathy and ‘rational ignorance’ (“I can’t affect the political outcome, so I shouldn’t invest a lot time thinking about it”). The inability to communicate the public will or interest to the representative is the result of not having the public organizational capacity to directly affect the voting behavior of the representative. If large numbers of the electorate are organized under the banner for gun-rights and against war, then the representative has the incentive to vote for gun-rights and against war. The very fact of public organization provides information to the representative as to which way he or she should lean, which he or she does by virtue of the incentive of reelection. However, in the absence of the democratic organization of the public, the system of electoral representation will accrue other, well-organized, undemocratic mediating factors between the representative and the electorate. These factors distort the information and incentives that exist between the representative and the represented.
One such mediating factor is the power of campaign contributions, a perennial topic of debate in American political discourse. As we are all too aware, candidates for seats in Congress and state assemblies solicit and receive private funding to cover the costs of campaigning across electoral districts. After the election (which often but not always goes to the candidate who spends the most money), the new representative then services the corporations and other interest-groups that provided the funding. Speaking abstractly, the information that candidates receive by such incentives is that this constituency is important. Practically speaking, Congress is for sale. The solution to this, public funding for electoral campaigns, has been obvious for some time; all that is lacked is the organized political will to force it upon Congress.»
Scorn for Political Parties
“Why do political parties exist, one may ask, if they function so poorly? The answer is: because their main function has little to do with the functions assigned to them by academic political theory…. They have made it possible for the competition among undemocratically chosen elites to be called and considered democracy – more than that, the democracy.” (Horvat, The Political Economy of Socialism, 315)
The greatest mediating factor is the political party, which has been deeply ingrained in Western political practice. In traditional Western political thought, the competition among political parties for votes ought to be the primary organizing element of the public. The public divides itself into broad political positions that reflect the varied interests of a pluralistic society. These broad political camps hold a variety of common or mutually sympathetic interests under their “tent,” and select candidates for election on the basis of his or her willingness to act in the interest of the party. The competition and turnover of the political parties in government represents the shifting balance of interests and opinions in the public as a whole. The individual representative becomes less important than their party label, and what people believe that party stands for.
But what a bunch of crap, am I right?
First, political parties, no matter how humble and democratic their origins, are eventually captured by their “organizational elite.” The organizational elite are the most active participants who make the party organization possible – the most capable and motivated managers. The rest of the party members eventually cede their participation to the professional organizers. The choice of electoral candidates becomes likewise ceded. Second, political parties are susceptible to “interest” capture, which works out alright when the interest represented is a broad sector of society – the working class, the small businessperson, what-have-you. But then specific sectors of these interest-sectors become the dominant force in the party, and you end up having your political party dominated by one favor-seeking sector at the expense of the whole of society. Finally, the very competition of political parties assists in these captures by distorting the priorities of the political parties as seen by their membership.» The quest for electoral victory and political power ends in the eventual abandonment of party priorities and purpose. In order to effectively compete, party democracy (assuming this was a concern of the political party in the first place) will cede to party oligarchy.»
Political parties are, or at least become, the means by which the public is organized for various elite purposes in our supposedly democratic nations. It is not the case that our collective deliberations are informing the choice and therefore the actions of our representatives. Rather, our individual wills or interests are shaped for the purpose of consenting to representatives who would not actually conform to our considered, deliberative choices.
Thus, the answer is no, we are not being represented – you know better than that!
There are many patches offered to fix the system of electoral representation. In 1994, the Republican Party came to power in Congress partly on a platform offering term limits for members of Congress. This has resulted in liberals disingenuously opposing term limits ever since. However, the principle is as old as Athens, and was referred to by revolutionary American democrats as the “principle of rotation.” Term limits prevent the growth of informal networks of favors outside the formal assembly by continually retiring some representatives after a certain number of terms. When a representative can’t be reelected after six terms, he or she takes all those connections to bureaucrats and lobbyists back home, and the new representative comes in with a clean, or at least cleaner, slate.
Recall votes, to remove representatives and officers from power, are a policy at least as old as the electoral principle – yet it has not been put into practice except in the most recent Latin American constitutions. The initiative and referendum, direct law-making by the people, is also useful for going around representatives and therefore for keeping them honest. This should be adopted just on the most basic democratic principle of the sovereignty of the people.
Proportional representation is the most often offered solution to the representative problem. “PR” is a voting system in which multiple representatives are elected from a large electoral district, and each voter chooses not only a first choice for representative but also second, third, and on (as many alternative choices for as many representatives). These choices are then aggregated and redistributed (there seem to be a dozen different ways to do this) until all the seats for the district are filled. By mathematical wizardry, the distribution of political parties among the representatives matches the distribution among the voters. More political parties end up in the representative assembly, and thus more people are represented, or better represented. Proportional representation makes sense only if you accept that the competition among parties is democratic representation.
The problem with proportional representation is that the procedure maintains the fiction that political parties are instruments of representation, rather than the oligarchic control of the organizational and “special-interest” elite of the particular political party. The fact that there are more political parties to choose from does not enhance the actual participation of the citizen. Proportional representation not only continues to substitute the political party for the organized will of the electorate, but enhances the position of parties as the only instrument of representation. What is wanted instead is a mechanism that binds the representative to the explicit and articulable will of the electorate. My tentative solution to this problem is what I call “participatory representation.” Stay tuned!