Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy

Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy

by Nadia Urbinati

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Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy by Nadia Urbinati

It is usually held that representative government is not strictly democratic, since it does not allow the people themselves to directly make decisions. But here, taking as her guide Thomas Paine’s subversive view that “Athens, by representation, would have surpassed her own democracy,” Nadia Urbinati challenges this accepted wisdom, arguing that political representation deserves to be regarded as a fully legitimate mode of democratic decision making—and not just a pragmatic second choice when direct democracy is not possible.
As Urbinati shows, the idea that representation is incompatible with democracy stems from our modern concept of sovereignty, which identifies politics with a decision maker’s direct physical presence and the immediate act of the will. She goes on to contend that a democratic theory of representation can and should go beyond these identifications. Political representation, she demonstrates, is ultimately grounded in a continuum of influence and power created by political judgment, as well as the way presence through ideas and speech links society with representative institutions. Deftly integrating the ideas of such thinkers as Rousseau, Kant, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Paine, and the Marquis de Condorcet with her own, Urbinati constructs a thought-provoking alternative vision of democracy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226842806
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 326
File size: 413 KB

About the Author

Nadia Urbinati is professor of political science at Columbia University. She is  the author of Mill on Democracy, also published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Read an Excerpt

Representative Democracy

Principles and Genealogy

By NADIA URBINATI The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-84278-3

Chapter One

Representation and Democracy

In that it is both an aspect of electoral behavior and a mechanism for determining government's responsiveness to the public, representation has acquired the status of a democratic institution in political science. This despite the fact that political representation is not associated exclusively with democracy (it predates modern democratic states and exists in states that are not democratic); in fact, its relation to democracy is permanently subject to debate. Yet the picture becomes more complicated when we move from political practice and survey analyses to political theory.

Indirectness in politics has never enjoyed much currency in democratic theory. Direct rule was generally seen as paradigmatic because it entails a fusion of "talking" and "doing" in political action and the full participation of all citizens in the decision-making process. Rather than naming a political order, "today, in politics, democracy is the name of what we cannot have-yet cannot cease to want." The modern "discovery" of representation has not seriously challenged this paradigm. Participatory democrats disdain representation because it justifies a vertical relation between the citizens and thestate and promotes a passive citizenry and an elected aristocracy. Procedural theorists of democracy give representation merely an instrumental justification and see it as a useful "fiction" that applies the division of labor to governmental functions.

Democratic theorists give representation a cold reception because it refers to political processes that are internal to the state, rather than to a form of democratic participation. Indeed, its democratic credentials come from election in time1 and time2, events that tell us representation's inception and termination, not its life span. As a result, political theorists emphasize the nondemocratic nature of representation, notwithstanding the successful performance of representative democracy. "Democratic theory has little to gain from talking the language of representation, since everything necessary to the theory may be put in terms of (a) legislators (or decision-makers) who are (b) legitimated or authorized to enact public policies, and who are (c) subject or responsible to public control at free elections." In other words, the main concern of theorists of democracy should be the citizens' "opportunity" "to practice direct democracy" in a representative system, rather than representation itself. According to Jane Mansbridge, in order to successfully address the issue of the norms appropriate to a representative system, the first order of business is to "assume" that "representation is, and is normatively intended as, something more than a defective substitute for direct democracy." The implication being that theorists intuitively assume the democratic norm as direct rule by the citizens rather than representation, the consolidation of representative institutions and the reliability of electoral behavior surveys notwithstanding. It seems there is no way to make representation what it cannot be: a valid substitute for direct democracy.

Representation in Democratic Theory and History

Despite the fact that theorists have trouble squaring the circle of the ideal (direct presence) and the real (indirect action) in democracy, significant historical examples invalidate the "defective substitute" argument. I shall cite two cases where democratization took the path of representation, one pertaining to civil society, the other to state institutions. The first example, the social movements that swept Europe during the late 1960s, is relatively recent. Although they are generally associated with assembly-driven behavior and the call for direct democracy, issues of representation defined the democratic goal of those social movements, which in large part began by denouncing either the lack or the emptiness of representational rights in the workplace, the university, and the high schools. This was particularly true in Italy, where factory strikes followed the dismantling in the mid-1950s of the workers' representative structures, a management decision whose goal was to gain full control over the organization of the productive processes (scheduling, hiring and firing criteria, wages, benefits, and environmental policy). When strikes began in the fall of 1969, Italian industrial relations were despotic in the classical sense of the word, and resembled European absolutist states before the parliamentary revolutions. This made the workers' claim for inclusion in the factory system of representation foundational rather than simply instrumental. It implied a radical transformation of how collective objectives became issues of common interest and how people wanted to be recognized within the framework of extant power relations.

The Italian case is reminiscent of the way the protagonists of the first constitutional revolution saw the struggle for political representation. Their demand that legislative power be transferred from the king to an elected parliament, and furthermore that seats in the House of Commons be assigned in proportion to the population of the counties of England, amounted to a claim for popular sovereignty. The Levellers foresaw the democratic implications of their call for representation when they claimed that the central problem of popular sovereignty (which they identified before any doctrine of popular sovereignty was formulated) was that of setting limits on a government that derived its authority from the people themselves, who, for this very reason, vindicated the right to a voice through free speech and the ballot. The designation of representatives in recurrent elections was the basic requisite of sovereignty or the liberty of the people. "If therefore the knights, citizens and burgesses sent by the people of England to serve in parliament have a power, it must be more perfectly and fully in those that send them. But (as was proved in the last section) proclamations, and other significations of the king's pleasure, are not laws to us." Algernon Sidney was arguing against Robert Filmer, whose defense of absolute monarchical sovereignty was based on the idea that the parliament should be consultative, not representative, thus explicitly linking representation to a popular (democratic) redefinition of sovereignty.

As Mark A. Kishlansky's painstaking analysis of the birth of the electoral process in seventeenth-century England shows, there was a chronological and functional link between the adoption of the electoral method to appoint lawmakers, the transformation of the elected from delegates to political representatives, and the emergence of ideological forms of grouping. Although elections have been considered an aristocratic institution since classical times, in modern states the electoral process stimulated two movements that became crucial to the birth of democracy. On the one hand, it touched off a separation between society and politics, or better said a transition from symbiotic relationships between the delegates and their communities to forms of unification that were thoroughly symbolic or politically constructed. On the other, the disassociation of the candidates from their social class foregrounded the role of speech and ideas in politics and finally the unifying function of representation. A similar process took place in France with the revolution of 1789. Here too, elections gave birth to entirely new cleavages and identifications made according to ideological criteria by deliberation and voluntary associations among legally equal voters. Clubs and political aggregations overtook the whole country, binding people who lived far away and severing neighbors.

Clearly, representation activates a kind of political unification that can be neither defined in terms of a contractual agreement between electors and elected nor resolved into a system of competition to appoint those who are to pronounce the general interest of all, as the eighteenth-century framers of representative government thought. A political representative is unique not because he substitutes for the sovereign in passing laws, but precisely because he is not a substitute for an absent sovereign (the part replacing the whole) since he needs to be constantly recreated and dynamically linked to society in order to pass laws. This renders the view of elections as a selection mechanism for the political leadership incomplete, although elections do produce a political class and initiate a division of labor within the polity. Elections always contribute to the formulation of the country's political direction, a process the citizens activate and sustain through multiple forms of political presence, neither just as electors nor through permanent mobilization. On this ground, it is correct to say that democratization and the representative process share a genealogy.

Three Theories of Representation

Kishlansky's analysis of the English case implies that elections and representation should be analyzed in terms of the relationship between state (the government) and civil society. Although the electoral structure of representation has not changed much in two centuries despite the extension of suffrage, theorists should not overlook the crucial changes the democratic transformation engendered in the functioning and meaning of representation. The emergence of the "people" (the citizens) as an active political agent did not merely refurbish old institutions and categories. The moment elections became an indispensable and solemn requirement of political legitimacy, state and society could no longer be severed and the drawing of the boundaries separating-and connecting-their spheres of action became an ongoing issue of negotiation and readjustment. Representation mirrors this tension. It could be said that it reflects not simply ideas and opinions, but ideas and opinions about citizens' views of the relation between society and the state. Any claim that citizens bring into the political arena and want to make an issue of representation is invariably a reflection of the struggle to re-draw the boundaries between their social conditions and the legislation.

Three theories of representation can emerge when we look at how representative government has operated throughout its two-hundred year history, from early liberal parliamentarism to its crisis and finally its democratic transformation after World War Two. Alternatively, we can say that representation has been interpreted according to three perspectives: juridical, institutional, and political. They presuppose specific conceptions of sovereignty and politics and, consequentially, specific relationships between state and society. All of them can also be used to define democracy (direct, electoral, and representative, respectively). Yet only the latter makes representation an institution that is consonant with a pluralistic democratic society.

These three conceptions are recognizable in the writings of the authors I have chosen to analyze (certainly Rousseau, Sieyes, and Condorcet). I must caution that they belong to a time when representative government had not yet become the object of sophisticated political science and practice, and society and state institutions had not yet undergone a democratic transformation. Yet in spite of their pristine straightforwardness, or perhaps because of it, their conceptualizations allow us to easily disaggregate the complex phenomenon of representation along the lines of the identity of the demos and the forms of their political presence.

The juridical and the institutional theories are closely interconnected. They are both grounded in a State-Person analogy and a voluntaristic conception of sovereignty, and they are rendered in formalistic language. The juridical theory is the oldest and requires more attention because it set the model for the institutional one, which was its gemmation. It predated the modern conception of state sovereignty and the electoral designation of lawmakers. It is called juridical because it treats representation like a private contract of commission (granting "license to perform an action by some person or persons who must possess the right to perform the given action themselves"). Delegation with binding instructions and alienation with unbounded trust have traditionally been the two extreme poles of this model, the former epitomized by Rousseau and the latter by Hobbes (although he did not theorize a representative "trusteeship") and moreover Sieyes and Burke (although the latter did not ground representation on a contractual base). Regardless which of the two poles it emphasizes, the juridical model configures the relationship between represented and representative along the lines of an individualistic and nonpolitical logic insofar as it presumes that electors pass judgment on candidates' personal qualities, rather than their political ideas and projects. According to this approach, representation is not and cannot be a process, nor can it be a political issue (implying for instance a claim of representativity or fair representation) to begin with for the simple reason that, in Pitkin's words, representation would be "by definition" "anything done after the right kind of authorization and within its limits." As Anthony Downs has candidly conceded in commenting on the effects of the application of the private (as contractual) model of representation to democracy he endorsed, "there is nothing for representatives to represent."

The juridical theory of representation clusters issues of state power and legitimacy within the logic of presence/absence (of the sovereign) and detaches representation from advocacy and representativity, the two political manifestations that spring from its unavoidable relation to society and citizens' political activity, as I will explain in this chapter. With Hobbes, its first modern interpreter, this approach developed into a technology of institution-building that became enormously influential for both the theorists of representative government (certainly Sieyes) and their critics. For instance, during the crisis of parliamentarism, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Carl Schmitt revived the constructivist function of representation conceived by Hobbes and Sieyes and used it to make the absent present, or to reconstruct the organic unity of the volk above (and against) the pluralism of social interests and through the personification of the sovereign (in the leader or führer). His goal was a more strongly unified state than was possible through the parliamentary compromise among interests or "government by discussion." In its radicalism, Schmitt's case is a useful example of the incompatibility between representation as a technique for achieving a (mystical) unity of the community and political representation.

The juridical theory of representation opened the door to a functionalistic justification of political rights and representation, citizenship, and decision-making procedures. Its rationale became the backbone of liberal representative government and, later on, electoral democracy. It is based on a clear-cut dualism between state and society; it makes representation into a rigorously state-centered institution whose relation to society is left to the judgment of the representative (trustee); and it restricts popular participation to a procedural minimum (election as magistracy designation).

In sum, the state-centered perspective implied by the juridical and the institutional theories prefigures two possible scenarios. On the one hand, as Rousseau argued, representation has no place in the discourse of political legitimacy for the obvious reason that it means transferring the power authorizing the use of force (the sovereign power) from the commonwealth as a whole to its part(s). On the other hand, as Sieyes argued, representation can be a strategy of institution-building on the condition that the subjects are given only the job of selecting the lawmakers. In this case also, sovereignty is essentially voluntaristic, its will narrowed to the (electoral) will with the result (and conscious intent) that the sovereign nation speaks only through the voice of the elected. On this account, parliamentary sovereignty can be seen as an electoral transmutation of Rousseau's doctrine of the general will, although, paradoxically, once transferred to the represented Nation, that will becomes a strategy for "blocking the way to democracy."


Excerpted from Representative Democracy by NADIA URBINATI Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Representation and Democracy
Representation in Democratic Theory and History
Three Theories of Representation
Continuity, Rupture, and People’s Negative Power
Discord and the Ballot, or Presence through Speech and Ideas
Partisanship as an Active Manifestation of the General
Proportional Fairness and the Dual Nature of Equality
Rethinking Popular Sovereignty

2. The Unrepresentable Sovereign
Either Delegates or Representatives
Sovereign Unity: Symbiotic or Symbolic?
Two Models of Unification
The Sovereignty of the Will
A Privatistic Model of Delegation
The Travel Agent and a Minimalist Participation
Imagination, Speech, and Deception
The Deliberative Judgment of the Few
Asking the Right Question
Paradoxes of Minimalism
Reflection and the Rule of Immediacy
The Time and Space of Politics and the Paradox of a Punctuated Freedom

3. Will and Judgment
Freedom from the Externality of the Presence
The Subterranean Work of Informal Sovereignty
Individual Atoms in a Participatory Void
The Soft Power of Judgment
Ideology and the Representing Faculty of Imagination
The Fiction of As If
Genres of Judgment
Political Dependence
Sensus Communis and the Revolution

4. A Nation of Electors: Representative Government as Electoral Democracy
All Human Relations Are Representative
Interest and Competence as Unifying Factors
Exchange versus Barter: Democracy Is Primitivism
The Currency of Electoral Consent
The Metamorphosis of the Citizen into the Elector
Passive and Active Freedom
The Symbolic Sovereignty of the Nation
The Impolitical Category of Competence

5. Perfecting Simple Democracy
The Sovereign Nation and Federalism’s Threat
Democratic Republicanism
Democracy Surpassing Itself

6. A Democratic Model of Representative Government
The Longue Durée of the Democratic Project in the Age of Representation
Perpetual Innovation versus Immediate Politics
The Secularization of Origins: Democracy as a Time-Regime
Indirect Despotism
The Syllogism of Democratic Constitutionalism
Democratic Moderation and the Principle of Collegiality
Democratizing Deliberation
Multiplying the Times and Places of Deliberation
A Cooperative Enterprise
Primary Assemblies and the Special Terrain of Politics
Sovereignty of Surveillance
Breaking and Restoring Trust
Conclusion: A Surplus of Politics

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