Rethinking Representation

Samuel Stone

The 2020 election has led to a renewed discussion of the state of representation in America, with a particular focus on the makeup of representatives elected to Congress. The debate focuses not on the beliefs and principles held by those elected, but instead on the makeup of the government based on race, sex, sexual orientation, and economic background. This concern arises from the belief that representatives should perfectly reflect the people they represent. In other words, representatives should be as near a carbon copy of their constituents as possible. The idea that representatives should directly reflect their constituents is not, however, a new idea. In fact, many Anti-Federalists articulated this view at the time of the Founding. The Federalists contested this vision with the assertion that representatives should not be completely subject to the opinions of their constituents. It maintained that representatives can still work for the common good without being intimately related. As the Federalists’ argument shows, the view of the carbon copy representative is both dangerous and unwieldy.

The Anti-Federalist view of representatives as mouthpieces for their constituents is best explained in the second letter of “Federal Farmer.” True representation, he explained, is only possible if all the views and feelings of the people are represented as if “they were all assembled.” Put another way, the representatives should completely reflect the people they represent. In essence, they serve as a megaphone, repeating and amplifying the concerns and desires of those who elected them. As such, “every order of men in the community” has a voice in the representative body. He continues to explain that every profession must be allowed to bring a “just proportion of their informed men” to the legislature. As a result, the Farmer asserts, only men of the same station can be concerned about one’s well being. As such, it is impossible to have a representative government which is not made up of every particular interest in the country.

This view of representation possesses a number of problems, however. First, and perhaps most dangerous, is the lack of protections against the common passions of the people. Unlike a direct democracy, representative governments allow for careful reflection of the issues at hand. As Madison explained, elected officials should seek to “refine and enlarge the public views.” By this, he means that the representative should examine the concerns of his constituents and seek to enact them while also concerning himself with the common good. In this way, a country avoids the rule of passion over reason. However, if representatives are simply bodies meant to act as the people they represent, such representation would be impossible. To be wholly given over to the concerns of one’s constituents leaves little room for reflection.

This view of representation inevitably leads to factionalism as each interest simply seeks to act in their own, immediate interest. The belief that the common good cannot be sought or obtained undergirds this view. It is merely possible, they argue, to protect the interests of your own class against attacks from other classes. By claiming that each interest must represent themselves, proponents of such a belief tacitly concede that they hold nothing in common with their fellow citizens. If such a common good existed, this representation would not be necessary. Instead each group would be seeking the same things in common and such divisions of representation would be asinine. 

Madison further outlines this view in his “Vices of the Political System of the United States.” As he explains, a man in Rhode Island does not consider what the effects of introducing paper money in Rhode Island will have on other states. He does not take the time to consider that such measures would destroy trade and industry in these states as the debt would be paid with money that is worthless in other states. As a result, the people in Rhode Island will no longer be trusted and would inadvertently harm themselves. Instead of these considerations, his only concern was whether this measure was sufficiently popular among his constituents. In this example, one can see how the man who is only concerned with his group or faction enacts laws which harm everyone in the society. 

Another problem that arises from such a view is the number of representatives that would be required to adequately serve all these interests. As “Federal Farmer” notes in his letter, the number of representatives proposed by the Constitution was too small to adequately provide such representation, as not all interests would be heard. However, this leads to the problem of a legislative body that is too large. As Madison notes, a legislature needs to “be kept within a certain limit” in order to prevent the body from becoming a mob. It has been shown that in large groups people tend to follow their passions and engage in acts which they would never do alone. In order to accommodate these calls for each interest to get a representative the legislature would have to expand to an enormous size. In essence, the lawmaking body would itself become a mob.

The Federalists opposed this view of representation, offering instead a twofold role for representatives. Although they agreed that representatives should be moved by the will of the people and beholden to their judgement, they asserted that representatives should go a step further. As previously mentioned, Madison believed that representatives should refine the views of the people. In this way the representatives held an obligation to seek the public good. As a result, a representative would listen to the concerns of his people and then look at the bigger picture of the country as a whole. This would balance the desire of his constituents with the concerns of the country at large and allow for the quelling of passions. By this, the government would be able to govern for the good of the whole and not just a particular group. 

The question of how representatives should operate is of utmost importance to a representative government. In many ways, today’s claims that Congress does not represent the country because it is not made up of the percentages they desire imitates the Anti-Federalist view of representation. They want each identity group to hold a percentage of representation that focuses solely on their interest with little regard to the rest of the country. This is due to the belief that people of one group cannot understand the experiences and needs of other groups. Justice then demands that each identity gets their own representatives to protect them. Such a view invites factionalism and threatens the stability of a country.

About the Author

Samuel Stone is a Senior Contributor for American Discourse and a Hillsdale College graduate who majored in politics. He currently is getting his masters from St. John’s College.

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