Who Do Representatives Represent?

I’ve often wanted to ask candidates for various representational positions in government a very simple question: “who do you represent?”

Or, perhaps more specifically, “how do you represent?”

There are several possible answers, and at least a couple of them are very valid. And yet the answer shines a very interesting light on exactly how government might work.

The cynical answer to “who do you represent” would be any constituency other than the actual voters or those who think they’re being represented. For example we might argue that politicians represent themselves or their own political ambitions. We might say that they represent big business, lobbyists, or whomever has the largest pocketbook. Or they might represent those whom their beholden in exchange for help along the way to their current and future positions.

While an interesting discussion, that’s not the type of representation I’m talking about.

Even when they system is working, honest, and above-board, “how do you represent” has two interesting possibilities.

The first is that they represent the opinion of their constituency. By that I mean given any issue, a representative will represent their best understanding of the wishes of those they represent. Done well, there’s little room for interpretation here; it’s mostly a data collection and number-crunching exercise. The representative tallies the opinions of those who care to express one, and then takes the majority opinion “up the chain” in the legislative or political process. It’s interesting to note that the actual opinions of the representative here matter very little. In fact, at an extreme, they could be replaced by a computer that simply tabulates the results of some structured opinion poll or survey.

The other approach is that they represent the interests of their constituency. This gets interesting, pardon the pun, because it is subject to the representative correctly understanding what those interests are. While constituency input may be important, opinions are significantly less important than information. In fact, the interpretation of the information is perhaps most important of all. Understanding how something harms or benefits a representative’s constituency becomes the key issue. An issue that is open for endless debate.

At the extreme, representing interests can be in direct opposition to representing opinions. In a sense it can seem to place government representatives in a position where they get to say “we know what’s best for you.” Needless to say that doesn’t always come across well.

In reality I expect what we have is a blend. Representatives collect both, and try to represent both the opinion and the interests of their constituency. When they come into conflict, I would expect most will lean towards representing what they feel is best, over what they feel is popular. But then again – what is popular is also what’s most likely to get them re-elected, so who’s to say?

Similarly I believe voters elect those whom would appear to represent their best interests. But I’m certain that most voters would expect that it’s their opinions that drive that, believing that their personal opinions are in alignment with their best interests.

And they cynical would claim that it’s all for show, and that none of it matters anyway.