Why Political Representation Doesn’t Represent

Photograph Source: Backbone Campaign – CC BY 2.0

An inherent political corruption in our system

The brand name emblazoned on our system of governance is “the republic.” It is a system of periodic elections for legislators and top administrators who, once elected, are said to represent their electorate. There have been times when the elected have actually represented the people who elected them. But not many.

Why is that failure so familiar? Why is it so normal to see elected representatives go their own way, regardless of the needs to their constituents? Sometimes, there is real corruption, involving backroom deals and money changing hands. But most often, the failure is owing to a mythological structure called “representationism.” It requires that people see what officials do as “representing” the people, though they clearly do not. It is an ideological disguise that hides the ethical pollution (rather than corruption) to which political proposals or actions fall prey. The notion of ethical “pollution” signifies that each enactment includes counteractions that neutralize it. That happens, for instance, when proposals get bogged down in procedures so that the means prevent themselves from arriving at their proposed ends.

Representatives cannot represent

In theory, representation is designed to facilitate efficient political discussion. The electorate is divided into districts, and each district elects a delegate to represent them in a higher body. It is a recognition of the impossible unwieldiness of a district’s people attempting to meet and make decisions. What is not recognized is the inherent exclusionism that accompanies that desire for efficiency.

Here’s how it works. Delegates are not elected to a higher body to make policy for their district. They are there to make policy for all the districts together, including their own home district, in collaboration with the other delegates. That is, they “represent” by bodily presence, but not by political purpose. As part of a collaboration, they have substituted themselves for their district in the different processes of making policy for the whole. And that substitution constitutes an aspect of political exclusion of the district’s people because it changes the structural function of their delegate.

The other side of this coin is that each elected delegate, by being granted membership in this “higher” body, is raised above the level of their district. It establishes an eliteness that separates them from their constituencies. When running for office, they are in primary relation to a constituency; but when serving on the “higher” body, they are acting in relation to people not from their district. In effect, having to act in relation to that body makes those in that body their new constituency. In practice, therefore, each delegate, becoming engulfed in eliteness, shifts their allegiance from one constituency to the other. Membership in the elite body means their primary dialogues and discussions are with the others of the “eliteness.”

This new fabric of relationship requires diplomacy, friendly tact, a deal-making strategy, and a reservoir of political bargaining chips. One must have the ability to trade support with others in order to get support for one’s own projects. As a result, what each delegate accomplishes for their district relates primarily to other districts. Politics becomes a hidden process of horse-trading, lobbying, or bribes, at each stage of which the policy a delegate seeks to promote gets modified, denatured, or degraded in order to satisfy other delegates.

Substituting oneself for one’s district and shifting one’s focus to a new and different constituency are two sides of the same coin. To call this disconnect “representation” is a mystification.

But even “real” district representation would fall prey to the same pollution. For a body (of delegates) to represent a district, it would have to be elected by the district with the power to enact policy in and for that district – which is ostensibly what a City Council is elected to do for a city. But that would only shift the geography of the problem. For a body to have the power to make policy for a district would require it to be constituted by “representatives” from subdistricts, which would undergo the same disconnect from representation.

In short, where representation is the mythic name for governance, “disconnect” is the reality of its relation to the people.

Representing multiplicity

But there is more. As a single elected delegate, each finds their job to be unfeasible. Every district is a multiplicity of interests. There are different classes, cultures, ideologies, and local political groupings all co-existing, with a heterogeneity beyond what one person could encompass.

With respect to housing, for instance, in a working-class district, there are renters, homeowners, landlords, homeless people, real estate agents, teachers, curbside auto mechanics, and laborers who make their living working on construction. Each has a different approach to housing development, producing a multiplicity of contradictory interests.

A homeowner’s main allegiance will tend to be toward the market system, deriving comfort from consumerism. Possession will lead to disparaging the dispossessed (homeless) as a blight on their landscape. Many have obsessive fears that unwanted presences (black people, for instance) will diminish their property values, and therefore require “removal.” A similar “fear” is heaped on the homeless. Conversely, the homeless will see the homeowners as despotic, biased and anti-humanitarian, an enemy able to deploy the representationist system against them, though they be victims of unseen economic and political forces.

These differences of interest are deeply embedded in the US and its history. Once upon a time, the representationism of governance limited voting to white male landowners in communities dominated by farmers and local commercial interests. That homogeneity, based on multiple exclusions, rendered the system practical. Over two centuries, the excluded have fought for inclusion, rendering a system based on homogeneity obsolete. Yet it doggedly persists.

Suppose a delegate attempted to educate homeowners about “justice” or greater tolerance or even common interests with the homeless or with black homeowners. Their success in developing a unity of consciousness would likely drive away banks and developers who are rarely interested in dealing with neighborhood unity or autonomy. The resulting financial abandonment might condemn the district to decay and impoverishment. Between white supremacy and corporate interests, a city just “ain’t got a chance.” If a City Council sought to opt for support for homeless encampment organization, as a self-help means of providing care and survival, that city will likely be sued by homeowners for preferring the humanitarian to a form of “final solution.”

In any case, elected delegates have to pick and choose between ethics and foreseeable effects. For the most part, they are thrown upon their personal priorities, forming political positions based on ideology, financial offers, and esthetic visions of the future. The purpose of this analysis is not to get any elected officials off the hook, but rather to indicate why failure at governance is structurally inherent.

Ultimately, that electoral failure has a reservoir of rationalizing mythologies to call upon. One goes: “I did my best,” without providing any critique of how the representationist structure actually worked against representation. Another asserts that “anyone can run for office.” The implication is that different people will do it better. But if the problem is structural, then electing a new face to replace an old one will only subject the new one to the same necessities of substitution and elitism. In Berkeley, against the crying need for affordable housing, we have seen this manifest in unmistakable terms.

The Two Party System

But finally, we have a two party system that has grown up to control politics and determine issues based precisely on the inability of elected officials to represent their constituencies. At the banalest level, of course, is the fact that a candidate for office needs a campaign organization and an ability to raise money. Every campaign is limited by the money neded to pay organizers, to buy time in the media, and buy endorsements. This need leads most (even a Bernie Sanders) to run as a party member (one of the “big two”) to “grease the rails,” as it were. (Third parties may exist, but must focus primarily on fighting for political space.) And at the verbal level, a candidate buys votes using words and images as currency. But as “currency,” the campaign words themselves mark the deep disconnect between the voters and the political structure.

In the end, it will be up to the party, and not the constituency, to decide if a candidate is “electable.” The candidate is then “run by” the party. This is even evidenced in city elections, though more nuanced and secretive because many pretend to be “non-partisan.” There are a few small town exceptions, but for the most part, the two party system calls the shots.

This is very different from the European multiparty ideologically oriented systems, emerging from a wholly different kind of history. It has been said about the US system is that the only thing worse than a one-party system is a two-party system, because in the latter, one has difficulty clearly discerning who the enemy is.

A primary problem faced by those who run independent campaigns is defense against the pejorative attacks that will be levied against any appearance of success (a form of social pressure designed to maintain the status quo – aka two party domination). In a society built on inequalities, exploitations, and oppressions, it is the desire for status quo that manifests the anti-democratic nature of representationism at its most vociferous level.

It is well known that the two party system in the US was born of the reality of enslavement and the inevitable abolition that ended the slave system. It represented an original strategic division of white people over how deal with (re-dominate, re-constrain, and further control) the freed bond-laborers. Though Jim Crow existed through legislation in the south, and as a cultural extension in the north, both parties had a presence in both zones, and fought nationally over their strategic differences. The two party system masked the political “reality” of white supremacy as mythology that shifted the criminality of segregation and “apartheid” to the acrimonious subject of the “black vote.” That mythology has not gone away. Today, the ability of black people to vote is being curtailed again by a white elite, as a resurgence of (white) control over the “reality” of representation.

The corporate structure and elections

After World War II, the representationist mythology suffered the ultimate pollution of a “bi-partisan foreign policy.” Political issues were relegated to a unified top-down leadership. And at the local level, the pre-war ward system was eliminated in order to dispense with political discussion during local elections. The two parties determined what was debatable and what was to be relegated to consensus. Certain issues were rendered outside public debate (anti-communism, the Cold War, support for Israel, the Vietnam war, seizure of other people’s oil, etc.). It is precisely that kind of conceptual control that is now intent on imprisoning Julian Assange.

As a framework, the notion of consensus renders society a form of corporate structure. The parties become the managerial bureaucracy, the electorate are the workers producing acceptance of managerial policy-products, and the entire socio-political system functions (without political oversight) in the interest of financial profiteering. In the bay area, where the majority of residents are renters, the most pressing need is rent reductions to livable levels. Yet no political movement exists to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act’s guarantee of rent inflation. In effect, nothing is allowed to interrupt the corporate seizure of real estate as corporate asset.

The modern corporation now plays the part of “citizen” in a global multinational corporate economic structure, having displaced public involvement in policy-making. It no longer needs the consensus of the electorate and assumes the power to impose itself on all aspects of the planet, which it transforms into assets for itself. This includes housing (e.g. development), law (e.g. one law for you and one for us), education (e.g. a tracking system), health care (e.g. copyrighted Covid vaccines), and politics (e.g. “Citizens United” decision), etc. Having thus replaced humans, the system drives the economy to the point where the planet will no longer support human life.

For example, up to the 1950s, the Gulf of Mexico was inhabited by members of two-thirds of all the species of fish on earth. It was that rich an environment. Now the Gulf is a dead zone because oil-drilling and chemical fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi watershed have destroyed its ability to support oceanic life. Representationism now dictates that this is an irreversible process.

Ultimately, the corporations are not the 1% because they are not people. They are an economic apparatus whose cogs and levers and motors are composed of humans put together like pieces of a machine. As agents of corporate interest, the two party system presents itself as the only (albeit dystopian) official space for political participation, while at the same time, making that participation impossible.

Alternatives to representationism

One alternative to the “constituency substitution” that delegates face would be a local ratification process in which a district could vote “no” on a measure passed against its interests or needs – like a kind of negative referendum. If a district was not happy with what a city council had produced for the whole city, it could hold a yes-or-no vote for the district itself on the issue that would be binding on itself as a district. For instance, should City Council pass a zoning regulation that only provided for 20% affordable housing units in any new housing development while, in one district, people thought that anything less than 80% would not meet their needs, they could vote the regulation down for their district, thus prohibiting development until something else was accomplished?

A second alternative might be a form of proportional representation. Each group in a district – e.g. renters, homeowners, the homeless, the professionals, etc. – could organize their own parties, with each sending a delegate to a district assembly. In that local assembly, issues could be resolved on the basis of local party voting strength, as direct representation. Politics would then involve principled coalitions rather than horse-trading diplomacy and obsequious compromise.

To summarize, “democracy” has still to be won in this country – understanding that term to mean that those who will be affected by a policy shall be the ones to make the policy that will affect them. We are a long way from getting there, with much mythological underbrush to clear in making pathways in that direction.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.