Representation

Our system of government is not a democracy. Don’t believe what they tell you. In its purest form Democracy involves a system in which everyone votes on every issue. But that is unworkable in any setting where there are large numbers of people involved, so the idea of representation was born wherein one person represents the wishes and desires of a great many more. This is what we have. When the founders discussed the concept as they were drawing up the Constitution they were fully aware of the inherent absurdity of representative government. One person cannot exactly represent any other person or two people or three. Even identical twins will disagree from time to time. By the time we have one person who is supposed to represent a thousand the absurdity will have become apparent to all but the most dim-witted.

But the large question the founders wrestled with was: given that we want representative government how should the representative vote on a particular question — as the majority of those he represents would have him vote (if he took a poll, for example), or as he thinks the majority should vote? The two cases might be quite dissimilar and this is because the concept of representation is absurd on its face. Clearly, there are problems with the concept of representation.

Above all else, the founders did not want what the British had. By the end of the Civil Wars in 1651 Great Britain had become a Commonwealth; Parliament came into power and the House of Commons was supposed to be a representative body — not pure representation (whatever that might be) but “virtual representation.” The English bought into the idea even though twenty-nine out of thirty Englishmen did not enjoy the privilege of voting. And representation was a bit of a joke: voting was restricted to men (!) of property. In some Burroughs there were no voters at all. Cornwall and Devon sent seventy representatives to Parliament; Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield had none. London, Westminster, and Southwark elected only six members.*

The founders of our nation knew they didn’t want what England had, so they settled on numerical representation, which makes a bit more sense. But it does not get around the absurdity of representation itself. Aware, perhaps, of this inherent absurdity, the founders decided to restrict the House of Representatives to two-year terms. With voting restricted to male property owners (though the notion of “property” was more generous than it was in England) there were relatively few voters and as we can see from the Federalist Papers the founders were certain that incompetent members would be voted out after a term. Term limits were not part of the deal: they seemed unnecessary. In addition, representatives didn’t stand to make much money while in Washington. On the contrary.

Much has changed, of course, as incompetent members of the House and Senate now serve for years (and years), make piles of money, and are seldom voted out of office. Further, they are elected in the first place because of special interests whose will has become the political will that drives the machine of government. The Representatives vote pretty much the way their wealthy supporters tell them to. So we have evolved from the absurd idea of representation to the even more absurd idea of  a government driven by special interest. The candidate goes to the highest bidder, and the sky is now the limit.

There are a couple of steps that could be taken to remedy the situation and make the notion of representation closer to the idea the founders had — despite its theoretical flaws. There could be term limits on members of the House and Senate, and there might be prohibitions against lobbyists and PACs in Washington. This would make it more likely that our representatives might actually represent the will of most of the people. But these steps will likely not be taken because those who would have to initiate such action are the ones who benefit from the status quo. So we seem to be stuck with a dysfunctional government separated into warring camps, unable to get along, in whom the people have little or no confidence. The founders must be wondering what on earth went wrong.

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[*The information about “virtual representation” in England was culled from John Miller’s excellent book “Origins of the American Revolution.]