While much aspersion has been cast upon some of the leading villains who have engineered the latest imbroglio in Washington, D.C.—Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, the Republicans, among those most often named—it is at least instructive to stand back from the current moment and consider the curious status of representation itself in today’s political circumstance. For we have neither of the two proposed forms of representation that were debated at the creation of America, but instead a hybrid that, arguably, combines the worst of both without the virtues of either.
Mostly forgotten today is that a major source of debate during the original ratification debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was the very nature of representation, and in particular, the role that would be played by elected officials along with their relationship to the citizenry. The debate especially touched on respective views of the organization of the House of Representatives, but more broadly implicated the very nature of representation itself. According to the Federalists—those who sought ratification and eventually carried the day—the Constitution aimed at the creation of fairly large districts with numerous constituents, better to decrease the likelihood of passionate political expressions and participation by the electorate. Larger districts would, they hoped, make it more likely that only the most successful and visible people would be sufficiently identifiable by a larger electorate, ensuring the election of “fit characters” to office who, they also hoped, would better be able to discern the public good than if the entire body of the people had been gathered for that purpose.
The Anti-Federalists, by contrast, argued for relatively small and homogenous districts in which there would be frequent rotation in office and shorter terms (a year, at most), thereby ensuring that representatives would be drawn from the body of the citizens, and that there would be a close bond between constituents and their representatives. Rather than hoping for representatives who would be prominent, visible and “fit,” instead they hoped representatives would be drawn from the “middling” part of society, whom they believed would be less prone toward vices of the “great,” such as luxury and empire, and more likely instead to be people of “ordinary” virtue.
In short, the Federalists subscribed to a “filter” theory of representation, which they hoped would lead to political leaders who would be able to make decisions in the “public good” rather than constrained by the narrow parochial interests of their constituents. They sought to encourage the formation of private-minded citizens who would pay relatively little attention to political matters, leaving it to competent “fit characters.” The Anti-Federalists advanced a “mirror” theory of representation, instead hoping that representatives would reflect the modest virtues of the yeomanry. They hoped to foster high degree of deliberation and political discussion among the whole of the citizenry, favoring more local and deliberative forms of self-government.
The Federalists hoped that representatives, drawn from among the ambitious, would—whatever the differences of their regions and constituencies—all share an ambition for American greatness, and put aside differences in favor of crafting policies toward that end. The Anti-Federalists hoped for a numerous lower chamber of considerable contention, one likely to thwart the ambitions of the elite and instead keep the central government relatively ineffectual, while fostering strong local forms of political self-rule. The Federalists believed in a strong division of labor, in which “fit” elected officials would do the “work” of politics; the Anti-Federalists defended the role of “amateurs” in politics, believing that citizenship consisted in that ancient practice of “ruling and being ruled in turn.”
The Federalists—particularly Madison in the justly celebrated Federalist 10—argued that this form of representation, combined with a large geographic scale, would constitute the best means of combating the formation of “majority factions.” Their overarching fear was of a portion of the polity using the levers of government to effect its narrow ends.
The Anti-Federalists insisted that their version of representation would forestall the creation of a “consolidated” government, making frequent agreement at the federal level unlikely, while also fostering civic virtues and practices that would keep governance close to home. Their overarching fear was a powerful central government commandeered by the wealthy and powerful.
Today, we have combined parts of each theory and arrived at a highly unpalatable and even toxic mix.
We have very large districts (far larger than even the Federalists foresaw), generally with over 750,000 constituents each, in which only those with some amount of wealth or status, or access to wealth, can hope to contend. Almost all Senators today are millionaires or better, and draw funding from the entire nation, not merely from the State that they represent. Of whatever political stripe, representatives are drawn to D.C. because of the lure of power and status, and generally seek to be continuously re-elected. In these respects, modern representation partakes of the Federalist view.
However, given the near-universal practice of gerrymandering, districts today are increasingly ideologically homogenous, even in spite of their large sizes. Representatives seek doggedly to vote in accordance to the wishes of their constituents, rightly believing that success of re-nomination and re-election hinges on voting in accordance with the overarching views of their constituents. In this respect, representation seems more to reflect the hopes of the Anti-Federalists.
We have the private-minded citizenry hoped for by the Federalists, but the “mirror” version of representation hoped for by the Anti-Federalists. We have large districts that foster relative distance between representatives and their constituents, with little real opportunity for practices of deliberation (to wit: witness the televised farce of what we now call “town hall meetings”), while expecting representatives to reflect dogged allegiance to the views of their constituents, ones that evince little of the hoped-for forms of civic virtue like frugality, modesty, and public-spiritedness.
A number of developments have led us to this pass. Gerrymandering has created relatively homogenous districts, but was done so not with a view to creating small districts with a high degree of civic participation along the lines hoped for by the Anti-Federalists, but to ensure the likelihood of re-election of a professional political class. The reforms of the direct primary ensure greater say by the citizenry in the selection of their representatives, but—as predicted by Henry Jones Ford in 1909—the result of this reform has been to increase the likelihood that the monied or famous would be sufficiently visible to be nominated. We have massive districts without the real opportunity for deliberation, but constant efforts by representatives to learn the views of the constituents by means of polling. Citizens are largely privatistic, but at the same time, the voting portion demands obeisance to their views.
Representation today, then, is plebiscitary without being civically deliberative. It is distant without the advantage of “filtering.” It is driven by private demands of constituents over a professional political class who acts on those demands. It replaces deliberation with polling, that snapshot of “public opinion” consisting of the aggregation of opinions that are not, in the process of accumulation, tested or refined. It does little to foster capacities for public spiritedness among the citizenry, while inviting the appearance of participation. It “mirrors” an increasingly querulous, divided, private, and civically-emaciated citizenry.
Representation—the great object of debate at the nation’s beginning, and hope of the leading voices of that era for the prospects of republican self-government—is almost entirely devoid of any of its recommended virtues, and almost wholly defined by the vices dreaded by both sides of the original debate.
It is with some shock that one reads the 18th-century debates over representation, and the political hopes that were attached to its various proposed forms. It was believed that representation was among the most important discoveries of the “new science of politics,” the invention that would make democracy—considered throughout the history of political thought to be among the worst forms of government—to be a viable political system. It is perhaps the most telling sign of the dimming prospects of republican self-government that not only is representation fundamentally without any of its hoped-for virtues and benefits, but we have even lost the ability to recognize this deeper fact as a matter of civic concern, deliberation, and renewed debate.