Alienation is a necessary byproduct of representation. Political scientists have long recognized electorates are composed of cross-cutting cleavages. There is no single piece of identity that determines how a person will vote. Differences in gender are challenged by differences in race. Differences in class are challenged by differences in religion. But each of these pieces of identity are not irrelevant. The Log Cabin Republicans have long supported same sex marriage. Indeed, they typically swing to the left on cultural issues, but they have continued to identify as Republican based on a Conservative economic vision.
In the 2016 US Presidential election, few voters were satisfied with their decision. The electorate was largely unhappy with both major party candidates. But this was not necessarily a new phenomenon. Americans have long decided between “the lesser of two evils.” Candidates and parties are composed of large coalitions. These coalitions are formed through natural compromises designed to obtain widespread support in an election. Yet these compromises alienate their core supporters. Representation is never total and complete. There are always inconsistencies between the candidate and their supporters. Indeed, the candidate will often compromise their own opinions so their public persona may not reflect their personal, private opinions.
The American political system is based on a winner take all electoral system. Representatives are elected in geographical districts designed to give local representation. Members of Congress fight for federal projects within their state or district regardless of the program’s benefits for the country. A representative who has a large defense contractor in their district will fight for increased military spending if it is channeled back to their constituents. Every member of the House and the Senate has a local office for constituent relations where they help residents regardless of partisan affiliation.
Long ago Tip O’Neal said, “All politics is local.” The American political system is designed to accentuate this commitment to the periphery. The British system provides local representative but concentrates power in the Prime Minister who manages the executive branch while leading the legislative body. The traditional Westminster system evolved to allow for swift political change. So, while representation was local, power was centralized. The American political system redirects power back to the constituents through their influence on elected representatives. The complex federal system gives states significant power. Indeed, political power is often multi-layered with townships, counties, municipalities and school districts all handling different aspects of administration and policy.
The American political system requires local interests to translate into national politics. The opinions of a community are consolidated into a single representative who reflects their ideas, opinions and interests on the national stage. Many Congressional districts have become noncompetitive as polarization has shaped national politics. In many ways, these districts are very representative because their representatives to the House and Senate know how their constituents feel on critical issues. In contrast, competitive districts give their representatives mixed signals. The elected official carefully focuses on a coalition necessary to compete in future elections. Unfortunately, this means those outside this coalition remain outside the traditional political process.
Geographic representation ensures views on local issues are represented, but it fails to reflect views, interests and identities dispersed throughout the population. Minority representation requires a significant concentration of the population within a district for a representative to take those perspectives seriously. Few ethnic or racial minorities are elected to the House or the Senate because they remain minorities within their electoral districts. Nikki Haley was South Carolina’s first Indian American Governor, but she does not champion Indian American issues. Her ethnicity takes a backseat to her political ideology.
The strongest critique against the American political representative system is found in the original public debate over the constitution. Anti-Federalism was not a coordinated movement or cause. The collections of articles and speeches called The Anti-Federalist Papers bring together different authors who did not coordinate their ideas into a single comprehensive argument. In contrast, The Federalist Papers involved three different authors, but their efforts were communicated amongst each other, so their arguments are consistent and methodical. Nonetheless, the writings of the Anti-Federalists relied on common arguments such as the necessity of a Bill of Rights and greater representation. Different authors were shocked at the size of Congressional Districts. Of course, these districts are twenty-three times larger today. They were afraid a representative could not adequately reflect the interests of 30,000 constituents. Today a part-time legislature of the Indiana State House represents almost 130,000 constituents.
The constituency argument involved greater nuance than simple mathematics. The greater concern was about the nature of representation. The Anti-Federalists feared the alienation of many social groups within Congress. Everyone expected Congress to become dominated by a “Natural Aristocracy” of large landholders, merchants and anyone else who joined the ranks of the wealthy. In districts so large they encompassed multiple communities; representatives had to rise above local popularity. These larger than life personas were not representative. Heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison made great representatives, but they did not reflect their constituents. The interests of small farmers, mechanics and small manufacturers were entrusted to the elites.
Hamilton tries to resolve the problem of representation in Federalist 35. He says, “Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants, in preference to persons of their own professions or trades.” This argument is inventive because it transforms a simple critique into a paradox. Free elections will never provide truly representative assemblies. The argument traces its origins back to Aristotle who believed elections were aristocratical because they elevated men of merit. In contrast, the democratic means of representation required selection by lot. David Van Reybrouck makes the case for representation by lot in modern society. This is difficult to imagine until institutions like the modern jury are examine. The judicial system depends on a jury system selected solely by lot without regard for education or merit.
Nonetheless, the Anti-Federalist critique was not hollow. The American system leaves large segments of the population alienated from the political system. It is not enough to have a vote. Without any political influence, the institutions of modern democracy fail to have personal meaning. Representation in the American system requires demographic concentrations. Those groups or parties who are dispersed around the nation fail to earn direct representation.
Proportional representation has emerged as a solution to the concerns of the Anti-Federalists. In its most extreme form, voters select party lists. Seats in Parliament are assigned based on the percentage of votes for each political party. It is known for facilitating multi-party political systems. The major political parties in the United States are based on coalitions established before the election. Proportional representation allows for the segmentation of voter interests. Governing coalitions are formed after elections.
But this electoral method gives voters a single choice. It does not allow for the recognition of cross-cutting cleavages where a single person may have multiple political identities that shape their final outlook. Women, for example, are historically underrepresented in government. A simple solution is to establish a political party to represent women. However, women will not universally support this party. They may choose a party based on a political ideology, an important single-issue or their ethnic background. Many countries have parties who represent small ethnic or national minorities. Proportional representation allows them to win seats in parliament despite an appeal to a small percentage of the electorate.
Of course, the Anti-Federalists did not want to elect politicians to represent different interests in the community. They wanted representation for members from these different social groups. Robert Dahl goes to great lengths to defend the idea that each person knows their own interests best. He sees guardianship as the great threat to democracy. Yet proportional representation has created a new class of politicians. Some of these people will identify with their constituency. The politicians of the Basque Nationalist Party will come from the Basque country and identify as Basque Nationals. However, the politicians of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party are not workers. They are lawyers and politicians who are Socialist. The elected officials resemble the Hamiltonian belief in a “natural aristocracy” rather than the Anti-Federalist hope for representative inclusion.
Of course, the PR system fails to provide the geographic representation of the American political system. Americans know who represents them in Congress. Or rather they can quickly find out using their smartphone. But a PR system fails to establish this direct form of accountability. Its intent is to provide greater representation, yet no voter can simply point to a single member of Parliament as their representative. The political parties become the channel to express local concerns rather than the representatives. But this allows them to act as a gatekeeper between the people and their elected officials. Of course, there is no guarantee any political party will care about parochial concerns because they are all focused on national elections. Spain has developed independent parties who represent the Basque Country or Catalonia, but these are exceptional cases and arise out of demands for greater autonomy or independence rather than the necessity for instruments to channel local concerns.
Democracies have evolved over their short history into a variety of methods to elect representatives. It is not possible to describe one method as more democratic as another. Every system has costs and benefits. Yet the introduction of representatives produces a natural alienation from the citizens. A natural challenge within liberal democracy is to overcome this alienation and allow for an expansion of political participation. The political system must evolve beyond the constitutional institutions, so people are incorporated into the decision-making process. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “As soon as public service stops being the chief business of the citizens, and they prefer to serve with their money rather than with their persons, the state is not far from its collapse.” This is not a prediction but a challenge. Thus, it is necessary to reflect on political participation within representative democracy.
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org