Technical difficulty of the text: 8 out of 10 – slow reading and re-reading are expected.

In chapter 7 of The Concept of Representation, Hanna Pitkin provides an overview of theories concerning the proper form of legitimate representation: mandate-based, independence-based, or somewhere in the middle.

My thesis will argue for a middle position where the explicit wishes of the represented are central for legitimate representation, but should be considered together with the long-term character of representation. Legitimacy is here closely linked to the assumption of autonomous dignity in individuals who should be able to decide what happens with their bodies and the nature they inhabit. However, since wishes change over time among individuals during public rule, more stable dispositions such as values should be approximated. The relevant assumption here is that that as individuals become more rational and better informed, they are better able to decide what is in their political interest, which can be defined as a policy end-point congruent with their values.

The approach will be to benefit from the virtues and stay away from the vices of both theories in terms of legitimate representation. One the one hand, the mandate-based position holds that the wishes of the represented should be mirrored as exactly as humanely possible by the representatives. The normative assumption here is that representation should be understood as an almost literal ‘making present’ in terms of wishes.

On the other hand, an independence-based position allows for the representative to have full discretion to decide what she believes
to be in favour of her constituency. This implies that at least some of the wishes are in themselves insufficient or unreliable to be voiced. Instead, the interests and the interpretation of the representative of those are deemed most important for representation. The main difference between these two different positions is the discretion of the representative in addition to what is explicitly stated by the voters. In the first case, there is almost no additional discretion, in the second case the representative decides what is good for others without necessarily taking the explicit wishes into account.

This essay disposes of both extreme positions and tries to find a middle ground. To start, the independence-position should be rejected if we are to assume the normative assumption of much of modern political theory: individuals, even if this is not entirely true descriptively, should be treated as having free will and agency, as being of equal value, and as having the moral right to decide what they want with their bodies and the nature they inhabit. If we are to accept this starting point, which I call autonomous dignity, what people state that they want, should be treated as what they truly want at that given moment. In principle, therefore, when desires are made explicit no further interpretation is justified and this wish should be taken as it is, and mirrored as it is in representative bodies. This contention is therefore mainly an ethical point concerning legitimacy and rights.

The former should also be rejected because of a factor that is crucial for this thesis: time. Representation is a long-term endeavour and constituencies will invariably change their opinions on the ways in which certain of their values should be realised as their information and sentiments change across time (the willingness to accept infringements on privacy after 9/11 is a clear example). This means that the wish of the constituency should not be seen as their wishes at time x, y, z, but for the total time of the representation. And since feedback moments will generally be considerably weaker due to constraints of time and interest between elections, it will be hard to go back to the represented and acquire an updated view that is, ironically, representative of the represented. What will not change so easily in four or five years (teenagers can be a clear exception) is the basic values of these groups. As such it becomes important to get clear what those are for every or at least the most important policy decisions.

However, since wishes, which are our main concern, change and values and interests are more stable, we are still pushed towards considering interests since we want to make sure that we represent the wishes of these individuals for the time that we are chosen. The discrepancy between wishes on the one hand, and interests (and values) on the other can be understood in terms of rationality and information. When these two factors are “perfected,” someone knows how to attain a state of the world that is congruent with their values and decides to follow this through, and thus their wishes and interests can be described as the same.

However, since rational disposition is not so easily achieved, the main focus should be the provision of factual information so that wishes move towards a more stable base (the values). The second implication is that when there is a conflict between a proposed policy or idea and the opinion of the constituency, the reason why the constituents disagree becomes essential. If the disagreement is based on clear false information and hollow conspiracies, perhaps influenced by temporary sentiments (e.g. after a terrorist attack) the representative has some ground to still pursue his own plan as the wishes of the constituents in time will be best served by denying the temporary errors caused by misinformation or transient sentiments.

Attaining the answer to the why is however difficult since, as I said, the engagement of the electors between elections might drop significantly. A potential solution can be the realisation of a descriptively representative sample group of people who are (financially) compensated and have an agreement to explicate their reasons for disagreeing with the representative at certain (time) intervals.

In short, if we are to believe that individuals should be assumed to have autonomous dignity in representative democracies, wishes should in principle be the most crucial facts to take into account. But since representation is a long-term effort, taking into account the wishes over time becomes more crucial. This means that rather than taking certain electoral moments that are blindly extrapolated to other decisions, representatives should try to follow the wishes when they think these are rational (meaning properly directed to their interests) and based on factual information so that they approximate the values of individuals. In other words, in the interest of time, interests are important to collect the wishes of the represented.

Further reading

The Concept of Representation (1967) by Hanna Fenichel Pitkin is a book that succesfully touches upon the many intricacies of the concept of representation in purely conceptual terms but also in relation to subjects such as arts and politics. It becomes immediately clear that the word has a rich set of meanings in our daily usage and that untangling these several uses has real implications to our understanding of related concepts.