Representation

AuthorWard E. Y. Elliott
Pages2201-2203

Page 2201

Representation is standing or acting in the place of another, normally because a group is too large, dispersed, or uninformed for its members to act on their own. It is not necessarily democratic; nor is it necessarily connected to the idea of government by consent. Democratic representation, based on the concept that governmental legitimacy rests on the reasoned assent of individual citizens, dates from the seventeenth century.

This concept has long been taken seriously in the United States. Colonial assemblies won as much domestic legislative power in the fifty years before the AMERICAN REVOLUTION as Parliament had won in 500, with broader voting constituencies than Parliament's and more conviction that the representatives should speak for their local constituencies rather than for the nation at large. Both this "inner revolution" and the outward break with England asserted a NATURAL RIGHT to government by consent of the governed and treated consent as more than a legal fiction. "No TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION " was the slogan asserting this right. A guarded commitment to majority rule has helped put the right into practice. As THOMAS JEFFERSON declared in his first inaugural address, "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable."

The Constitution put certain restraints on majority rule: it banned some acts outright; it divided its majorities by SEPARATION OF POWERS and FEDERALISM; and it permitted an electorate that was restricted mostly to white male landowners. Yet the Constitution was democratic for its day; it has since expanded both the number of elective offices and the franchise; and its very barriers to majority whim, requiring the creation of broad, stable coalitions to rule, have brought about a majority rule stronger and more reasonable than might have evolved from a less fettered regime. JAMES MADISON, explaining and defending the Constitution in THE FEDERALIST, extolled the principle of representation as the device that made majority rule compatible with good government. Representation made possible the extended republic, embracing a large enough territory and population to be safe from foreign aggression and a great enough diversity of economic and other interests to minimize the danger of majority faction. Indirect self-government through a limited number of representatives required coalition-building, with diverse factions compromising their antagonistic goals. Representation also facilitated deliberation: direct democracy (exemplified by the Athenian Assembly) smacked too much of mob rule.

But the Constitution left many questions of representation unsettled. Whom, exactly, do the representatives represent? Does the representative speak for his district, state, or nation? Does he speak only for his supporters and his party, or for opponents, nonvoters, and the unfranchised as well? Does he speak for the whole people or for a coalition of interests? Answers depend on what representation is expected to accomplish and how it is structured.

There has been little agreement in American history about the goals of representation. Some, such as Jefferson and ABRAHAM LINCOLN, have argued that the purpose of the regime...

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