"Dumbing Down" Representation

Douglas Koopman

August 1, 1999

The United States is undergoing an unhealthy shift in the meaning of political representation. The change is manifest in Hillary Clinton’s likely U.S. senate candidacy in New York and Jerry Springer’s less likely bid in Ohio. These unusual candidacies arise from a misguided desire to purify politics by voting “for the person” or “on the issues.” In the process, we have set aside a better theory of representation to grasp for the illusions of nonpartisanship and principle.

Edmund Burke was a member of the British parliament during the American Revolution of 1776 (and one of its rare advocates for our independence). In a speech to his constituents, Burke described a view of representation that dominated in both Britain and America at the time. He told them “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

What an unusual notion—a representative following his or her own judgment above public opinion, a thinking “trustee” of the public interest. Trustee representation can only work under certain conditions. A representative must have intimate knowledge of the people and interests they represent. By living and working for many years in the area he or she represents, he or she has the experience to know the true interests of the constituency and not just the results of the last opinion poll. Second, a “trustee” must have integrity, for it takes wisdom, courage and honesty to cast votes wisely, once the “certainty” of poll results are discarded. And finally, it takes a politician willing to sacrifice his or her power to “do the right thing” according to personal conviction.

Instead of representation based on local knowledge, integrity, and a life beyond politics, consider what we get. Some of us are represented by politicians our own race, age, sex, sexual orientation, or religion. We think these “descriptive” characteristics are important, but too often a focus on these characteristics signals politicians who fit these categories to become national spokespersons for a group or issue, not to represent all the citizens of a particular place. We get much “symbolic” representation, where a politician conveys a sense of caring, identification, and empathy without actually delivering any benefits.
It’s “feel your pain” representation without feeling anything.

What a mess politics has thus become. Four decades of living with the people is replaced by four weeks of a “listening tour.” Wisdom and judgment get replaced by focus groups and spin. Empathy for average American citizens and their everyday concerns is replaced by exhibitionism and staged events. Concern with the higher interests of a local constituency is replaced by pandering to a narrow nationwide slice of the American cultural landscape. “Drive-by” intimacy now substitutes for the sound knowledge of real-life experience.

Especially harmed are our two major political parties, which are getting a bad rap from the politicians who benefit by the new rules. Good political parties do great things. They bring together diverse local interests across our nation to hammer out common views on a small number of national issues, and to present two or more contrasting sets of these views so voters can choose accordingly. Parties also help divide governing responsibilities among the various levels of government and organize policy at each level.

Under trustee representation, local citizens could trust their representative to join one of the major parties, knowing that their local representative would not sell out on fundamental issues, and work within the system most of the time to achieve policy goals. Now we have none of these assurances. In place of trust, we require politicians to take public positions on a laundry list of special interest issues. As political parties decline, special interest groups flourish.

The change in representation is to some extent a part of larger social changes. American families often move to seek better jobs or better living conditions. That raises the legitimate question that if we don’t live in the same place all our lives, why should we expect our politicians to do so?

The answer is because representation is a special responsibility. The interests and values of a community take time to develop and to change, far longer than most people realize. A good representative understands past local history as well as future national possibilities. We don’t get that in our new style of representation.

The new representation is bad for politics and government—it rewards wrong behavior before and after running for office. All the new representation does is sever the local connection of politicians and polarize national politics. That cuts our connections to politics and government, and makes us ever more cynical of the political process.

We need to demand again representation by our more virtuous and locally grounded citizens. Look around you. Surely you know a long time community resident with wisdom and integrity. Encourage them to run for public office. We should reward such citizens, and run from those who are not.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.