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In the common view, political representation is assumed to refer only to the political activities undertaken, in representative democracies, by citizens elected to political office on behalf of their fellow citizens who do not hold political office. However, the lack of consensus in the political literature on political representation belies this common view. Theorists of representation differ not only in their definition of representation but also, among other things, on what the duties of a representative are, who can be called representative and how one becomes a representative.[1] In her seminal work on political representation (The Concept of Representation), Hanna Pitkin defined political representation as, "a way to make [the represented] present again" [2] and identified four views of political representation which, since her book's publication, have shaped contemporary debates on political representation. Recently, Jane Mansbridge has identified four other views of specifically democratic political representation which, although they are distinct, share some similarities with Pitkin's. On the other hand, Andrew Rehfeld has critiqued the failure of theorists like Pitkin and Mansbridge to articulate a purely descriptive view of political representation and has proposed a general theory of representation that recognizes that political representation can be and often is undemocratic.[3]


In The Concept of Representation, Pitkin identifies four distinct views of political representation that emerge in the political literature on the subject:

Formalistic views of representation identify political representation with the formal procedures (e.g. elections) used in the selection of representatives. Pitkin distinguishes two formalistic views on political representation - the authorization and accountability views. Under the authorization view, a representative is an individual who has been authorized to act on the behalf of another or a group of others. Theorists who take the accountability view argue that a representative is an individual who will be held to account.[5] Generally, the authorization and accountability views of political representation are discussed, separately or in combination, in the context of representative government.

The descriptive and symbolic views of political representation according to Pitkin describe the ways in which political representatives "stand for" the people they represent. Descriptive representatives "stand for" to the extent that they resemble, in their descriptive characteristics (e.g. race, gender, class etc.), the people they represent.[6] On the other hand, Symbolic representatives "stand for" the people they represent as long as those people believe in or accept them as their representative.[7]

Pitkin argues that these views of political representation give an inadequate account of political representation because they lack an account both of how representatives "act for" the represented and the normative criteria for judging representative's actions. Hence Pitkin proposes a substantive view of representation. In this view of political representation, representation is defined as substantive "acting for", by representatives, the interests of the people they represent.[7]

In contrast, in her article, Rethinking Representation, Jane Mansbridge has identified four views of democratic political representation: promissory, anticipatory, surrogate and gyroscopic. Mansbridge argues that each of these views provides an account of both how democratic political representatives "act for" the people they represent and the normative criteria for assessing the actions of representatives.[8] Promissory representation is a form of representation in which representatives are chosen and assessed based on the promises they make to the people they represent during election campaigns. For Mansbridge, promissory representation, preoccupied with how representatives are chosen (authorized) and held to account through elections, is the traditional view of democratic political representation. Anticipatory, surrogate and gyroscopic representation, on the other hand, are more modern views that have emerged from the work of empirical political scientists. Anticipatory representatives take actions that they believe voters (the represented) will reward in the next election. Surrogate representation occurs when representatives "act for" the interest of people outside their constituencies. Finally, in gyroscopic representation, representatives use their own judgements to determine how and for what they should act for on behalf of the people they represent.[1]

Invoking the growing importance of undemocratic but representative international bodies like the European Union and the failure of extant theories of political representation to account for such undemocratic representation, Andrew Rehfeld has proposed a General Theory of Representation. Under Rehfeld's general theory of representation, a person is considered a representative as long as the particular group she represents judges her as such.[3] Rehfeld argues that his general theory of representation, unlike Pitkin and Mansbridge's, only seeks to describe what political representatives are, not what they should be or do. Hence under Rehfeld's theory, it does not matter to the status of representatives whether or not they are democratically elected or substantively "act for" the interests of the represented. This is not to say that Rehfeld argues that democratic political representatives can be representatives without being elected or be said to represent the represented without substantively acting for their interests, they do. Rather, Rehfeld only seeks to point out that political representation is not limited to the democratic case.

Rehfeld's theory is as follows: in any case of political representation, there are representatives (formally a set), the represented, a selection agent, a relevant audience and rules by which the relevant judge whether or not a person is a representative.[3] Formally, representatives are a set who are selected by a selection agent from a larger set of qualified individuals who are then judged to representatives by a relevant audience using particular rules of judgement. The rules by which a relevant audience judges whether or not a person is a representative can be either democratic or non-democratic. In a case where the selection agent , relevant audience and the represented are the same and the rules of judgment are democratic (e.g. elections), the familiar democratic case of political representation arises and where they are not, undemocratic cases arise.

Irish politician Edmund Burke in his 1774 Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll was noted for his articulation of the principles of representation against the notion that elected officials should be delegates who exactly mirror the opinions of the electorate:

Pitkin points out that Burke linked the district's interest with the proper behaviour of its elected official, explaining, "Burke conceives of broad, relatively fixed interest, few in number and clearly defined, of which any group or locality has just one. These interests are largely economic or associated with particular localities whose livelihood they characterize, in his over-all prosperity they involve."[10]

Representation by population

In this method, elected representatives will be chosen by more or less numerically equivalent blocks of voters. This is not always practical for historical and current political reasons, and sometimes is impractical purely on the basis of logistics, as in regions where travel is difficult and distances are long. The shortened term "rep-by-pop" is used in Britain but is relatively uncommon in U.S

Historically rep-by-pop is the alternative to rep-by-area. However, in the colonial countries, the geographic realities made a necessity of low-population electoral districts in order to give meaningful representation to remote communities, and only in urban and suburban areas has there been any success with applying rep-by-pop more or less evenly

In the United States and other democracies, typically the lower house of a bicameral (two-chamber) system is based on population—more or less—while the upper House is based on area. Or, as it might be put in the United Kingdom, on title to land, as was originally the case with the old pre-Reforms House of Lords. In the Senate or the Lords, it does not matter how many people are living in a constituent's jurisdiction, it matters that the constituent have the jurisdiction (by election, heredity or appointment—the US, the UK and Canada respectively).

Representation by area

The principle of rep-by-pop, when brought in and promoted publicly, removed many archaic seats in the British House of Commons although some northern and rural counties necessarily still have variably lower populations than most urban ridings. Former British colonies like Canada and Australia also have rural and wilderness areas spanning tens of thousands of square miles, with fewer voters in them than a tiny urban-core riding. In the most extreme case, one riding of the Canadian parliament covers more than 2 million square kilometres, Nunavut, yet has less than one third the average number of voters for a riding, with a population of about 30,000. Making the riding larger would be difficult for the elected member, as well as for campaigning and also unfair to remotely rural constituents, whose concerns are radically different from those of the medium-sized towns that typically dominate the electorate in such ridings.

The American Constitution has built into it a series of compromises between rep-by-pop and rep-by-area: two Senators per state, at least one Representative per state, and representation in the electoral college. In Canada, provinces such as Prince Edward Island have unequal representation in Parliament (in the Commons as well as the Senate) relative to Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, partly for historical reasons, partly because those electoral allotments are constitutionally guaranteed, and partly because governments have simply chosen to under-represent certain voters and over-represent others. In the United States, Baker v. Carr (1962) established the "one-person/one vote" standard, that each individual had to be weighted equally in legislative apportionment.

In Canada, until recent reforms, there were still many federal and provincial electoral districts in British Columbia and other provinces that had less than a few thousand votes cast, notably Atlin, covering the province's far northwest, with no more than 1,500. The area of the riding was about the size of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined, and larger than many American states. In practicality, the voters of the tiny communities scattered across the subarctic landscape, less than the population of a city block, had as much electoral clout as two Fraser Valley municipalities totaling up to 60,000 in population. The population imbalance between largely rural areas and overwhelmingly urban areas is one reason why the realities of representation by area still have sway against the ideal of representation by population.

Descriptive and substantive representation

Under representative democracy, substantive representation (in contrast to descriptive representation) is the tendency of elected legislators to advocate on behalf of certain groups.

Conflicting theories and beliefs exist regarding why constituents vote for representatives. "Rather than choosing candidates on the basis of an informed view of the incumbents' voting records, voters, it is argued, rely primarily on the policy-free 'symbols' of party identification".[11] Politicians, it would seem, have little to fear from a public that knows little about what laws their representatives support or oppose in the legislature.

Descriptive representation is the idea that elected representatives in democracies should represent not only the expressed preferences of their constituencies (or the nation as a whole) but also those of their descriptive characteristics that are politically relevant, such as geographical area of birth, occupation, ethnicity, or gender.

Sometimes voting systems that obtain proportional representation may achieve descriptive representation as well. However this can be guaranteed only to the extent that voting patterns reflect descriptive characteristics of the voters. If a particular trait is not a concern for voters or prospective candidates (for instance, eye color), then, if the system does not introduce other biases, an elected body will resemble a random sampling of the voters instead.

Some[12] argue that cynicism and distrust towards government of disadvantaged minorities is partly due to not having representatives with similar characteristics. Supporters of this argument point out that as descriptive representation increases, distrust decreases. This can be the basis of laws imposing that half the candidates on a given list be women (for example in France since 2001) or of voluntary measures (Spain's current government has eight women and eight men). Opponents of such logic argue that political interests as already addressed by the political system may play a larger role.

Dyadic representation

Dyadic representation refers to the degree to which and ways by which elected legislators represent the preferences or interests of the specific geographic constituencies from which they are elected. Candidates who run for legislative office in an individual constituency or as a member of a list of party candidates are especially motivated to provide dyadic representation. As Carey and Shugart (1995, 417) observe, they have “incentives to cultivate a personal vote” beyond whatever support their party label will produce. Personal vote seeking might arise from representing the public policy interests of the constituency (by way of either the delegate, responsible party, or trustee models noted above), providing it “pork barrel” goods, offering service to individual constituents as by helping them acquire government services, and symbolic actions.

The most abundant scientific scholarship on dyadic representation has been for the U.S. Congress and for policy representation of constituencies by the members of the Congress. Miller and Stokes (1963) presented the seminal research of this kind in an exploratory effort to account for when alternative models of policy representation arise. Their work has been emulated, replicated, and enlarged by a host of subsequent studies. The most advanced theoretical formulation in this body of work, however, is by Hurley and Hill (2003) and by Hill, Jordan, and Hurley (2015) who present a theory that accounts well for when belief sharing representation, delegate representation, trustee representation, responsible party representation, and party elite led representation will arise.

Collective representation

The concept of collective representation can be found in various normative theory and scientific works, but Weissberg (1978, 535) offered the first systematic characterization of it in the scientific literature and for the U.S. Congress, defining such representation as “Whether Congress as an institution represents the American people, not whether each member of Congress represented his or her particular district.” Hurley (1982) elaborated and qualified Weissberg’s explication of how such representation should be assessed and how it relates to dyadic representation. Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson (1995), offer the most advanced theoretical exposition of such representation for the U.S. Congress. And the latter work was extended in Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson (2002).

In most Parliamentary political systems with strong (or ideologically unified) political parties and where the election system is dominated by parties instead of individual candidates, the primary basis for representation is also a collective, party based one. The foundational work on assessing such representation is that of Huber and Powell (1994) and Powell (2000).

See also

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