Political Representation Research Paper

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Political representation is a process in which one individual or group (the representative) acts on behalf of other individuals or groups (the represented) in making or influencing authoritative decisions, policies, or laws for a polity. The representati e may hold any of a variety of offices (executive, administrator, ambassador, judge, lobbyist, party leader) and may even be a collectivity (a governmental agency or political organization), but the modern concept most commonly refers to the role of a legislator. Similarly, the represented may be almost any individual or group, but is usually understood to be those individuals or groups, typically called constituents, who are entitled to select the legislators. Some important work examines the relationship between legislative and other forms of representation (Stimson et al. 1995), but most has focused on one or more of three dimensions of legislative representation: relationships between the representatives and the represented; among the represented; and among the representatives.

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1. Origins

Political representation in its modern form evolved over a long period from about the fourteenth to the seventeenth century as kings and nobles convened assemblies to collect revenue and conduct wars. The bodies, usually composed of members from various estates or classes, gradually assumed independent power, and came to be thought of as representative institutions. In the debates during the Civil War period in England, defenders of Parliament connected the idea of representation clearly to the idea of consent of the governed. In 1651, the members of Parliament were for the first time referred to as ‘ representatives ’ (Pitkin 1967; also see Larsen 1966, Manin 1997).

By the eighteenth century the link between representation and popular rule had become sufficiently close that Baron de Montesquieu could praise the English constitution for establishing a republic in a large state by giving the people a voice through their representatives in the legislature. Defending the new American constitution, James Madison argued that representation not only made republics possible in large territories, but also mitigated their dangers, especially the influence of factions (Wood 1972) Representative government was not yet representative democracy, because much of the adult population could serve as neither representatives nor the (actually) represented. It was John Stuart Mill who in the late nineteenth century provided the framework for the theoretical synthesis that combined the traditional virtues of representation and the emerging ideals of democracy (Thompson 1976).

2. Legislators And Constituents

At least three aspects of the role of the representative should be distinguished. The first concerns the mode of representation—how constituents are represented. It expresses a continuum in which the limits are specified by the traditional contrast between trustee and delegate. The second aspect is the locus of representation—which citizens are represented. Among the possibilities are the nation as a whole, a political party, the state or district, and various groups and organizations. The district is more complex than is often assumed. For example, many legislators are bound to local elites and national interest groups whose interests may diverge from those of other groups in the district, and some legislators see themselves as representatives of under-represented groups, such as blacks and women. The third aspect refers to variation in the content of representation—the types of issues with which a representative deals. A legislator may act, for example, as a delegate of the district majority on welfare issues, as a delegate of the national majority on civil rights, but as a trustee of both on foreign policy.

Given this complexity, it is not surprising that the most plausible normative theories refuse to privilege any one of these roles; what each representative should do depends on the nature of the particular issues, what other representatives are doing, and the biases in the political system. Similarly, when political scientists use the simpler conceptions of role, they rarely find any general correspondence between a representative’s conception of role and actual behavior. The most robust accounts of legislators ’ conceptions posit decision trees with multiple branches and a complex set of factors (Kingdon 1981, p. 244).

On any account of the role of the representative, there is the further question of how representatives can be held accountable. The methods vary, depending on the political system, and on assumptions about what political accountability means. The form of accountability that has received the most attention is the electoral connection between representatives and constituents. Much of the empirical literature on the linkages between the policy preferences of constituents and legislators has been influenced by the classic model presented by Miller and Stokes (1963), which highlights four major variables: legislators ’ personal attitudes, roll call votes, constituency opinion, and legislators ’ perceptions of constituency attitudes. The vast literature on this linkage shows that the conditions under which each has an effect are quite variable. It is now recognized that roll call votes fail to capture much important legislative activity, and do not always reflect the actual views of legislators. A still unresolved puzzle is why individual representatives (even in safe seats) exert so much effort to please their constituents and collectively act in ways that track mass public opinion even while the evidence indicates that constituents and the mass public are not well informed about what their representatives believe and do (see Uslaner 1986).

A related trend is the growing importance of constituent service (a practice in which representatives help constituents and groups in dealing with their particular problems with government, such as immigration and state and federal grants). The electoral effect of constituency service remains a subject of some controversy among political scientists, but there is agreement that the practice is now more prevalent (Cain et al. 1987). Another effect that has provoked important work is pecuniary. Since at least the eighteenth century students of legislatures have studied and often criticized the influence of money and wealth on the behavior of representatives. Political scientists have not generally found strong correlations between contributions and roll call votes on broad policy areas even in the US system. But they have found that money may buy access—marginal time, energy, and legislative support.

3. Constituents

All legislative representation is group representation. Even in societies governed by individualist norms such as ‘ one person-one vote, ’ the definition of the constituency implicitly identifies a group or groups that are to be represented.

Party-based representation is associated with a modified form of proportional representation in which the share of votes that each party receives determines how many of the candidates from its lists win seats in the legislature. The system usually produces multiple parties, and thus gives voters a wide range of ways to express the interests they wish to have represented. However, it gives voters less choice about which particular candidate should serve as their representative, and in this respect differs significantly from the purer form of proportional representation, the system of the single-transferable vote, in which every successful candidate has a unanimous constituency.

Geographical representation usually relies on single-member plurality systems, and tends to produce only two or three parties. The parties represent broader interests than do the parties in modified proportional systems, but if party discipline is weak, as in the USA, the geographical basis encourages the representation of particular regional and other interests. No single type representational system has been shown to be superior in all or most circumstances, and the choice generally involves a trade-off: the wider the range of interests represented in the legislature, the less the likelihood that any particular interest will be fully represented in legislation actually adopted. The most useful scholarship on these and related questions has been comparative (Klingemann et al. 1994, Converse and Pierce 1986).

In systems such as the USA, where many of the districts that define constituencies do not follow any natural geographical boundaries, the issues of how the districts are drawn and whether they produce fair representation have stimulated important normative and empirical research. Political scientists have examined the partisan and incumbency biases in various redistricting schemes. Some of the most interesting theoretical work in this area combines empirical and normative approaches. One study has developed more analytically robust concepts of ‘ fair representation ’ in electoral systems (Beitz 1989), and another has revived the theory of descriptive representation for ‘ marginalized groups ’ (Williams 1998).

4. Legislators

Much of the research on this element of representation has dealt with the tension between individual and collective behavior in the legislature. In the USA a phenomenon that has received considerable attention is what is sometimes called legislative individualism, the tendency of legislators to act in ways that promote their own re-election without regard to the effect on collective product of the legislature. Such individualism has been shown to produce a pattern of ‘ particularized benefits ’ (dams in certain regions, tariffs for local industries, and military bases in the district) and the neglect of more general public benefits (such as education, health, and the environment. The explanations for these outcomes vary, but they are generally structural, locating the problem in the incentives of the system, rather than in the character of legislators. They generally assume that, given the structure of the political system, individually rational behavior by legislators produces collectively suboptimal outcomes in the legislature.

If all legislators are pure individualists seeking only particularized benefits for their own constituents, how (under conditions of majority rule and weak parties) can the legislature adopt any legislation at all, even the pork barrel kind? This puzzle has been extensively studied by formal theorists, who propose various solutions for achieving policy equilibria in legislative institutions. One of the most plausible relies on a committee system to set an agenda and limit the scope of conflict. But shared interests and cross-cutting cleavages would still be necessary in any actual system. These are more likely to exist or to arise in legislatures that encourage or at least permit representatives to change their positions through interaction with their colleagues. This is one of the advantages of deliberative theories of legislative representation, which allow for changes in the preferences of both representatives and the represented over time (Gutmann and Thompson 1996, Chap. 4).


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  2. Cain B, Ferejohn J, Fiorina M 1987 The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  3. Converse P E, Pierce R 1986 Political Representation in France. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  4. Gutmann A, Thompson D 1996 Democracy and Disagreement. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  5. Kingdon J W 1981 Congressmen’s Voting Decisions, 2nd edn. Harper and Row, New York
  6. Klingemann H-D, Hofferbert R I, Budge I 1994 Parties, Policies and Democracy. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  7. Larsen J A O 1966 Representative Government in Greek and Roman History. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  8. Manin B 1997 The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  9. Miller W E, Stokes D 1963 Constituency influence in Congress. American Political Science Review 57
  10. Pitkin H F 1967 The Concept of Representation. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  11. Stimson J A, Mackuen M B, Erikson R S 1995 Dynamic representation. American Political Science Review 89: 543–65
  12. Thompson D F 1976 John Stuart Mill and Representative Government. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  13. Uslaner E M 1986 Legislative behavior: the study of representation. Annual Review of Political Science 1: 205–37
  14. Williams M S 1998 Voice Trust and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  15. Wood G S 1972 The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787. Norton, New York


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