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  • Writer's pictureDonna K. Rice

Theories of Representation

Understanding the Role of Your Local Legislators

Did you know there were three theories of representation when it comes to government and elected officials? Considering those theories in the context of the current political landscape sheds light on some of the disagreements and rhetoric of our day. It also helps us to put in perspective the role of our legislators.

Before we start into the theories, let’s pause and remember the difference between a republic and a democracy. A republic is governed by a constitution or charter which contains within it the parameters of governmental authority. A democracy is governed by the will of the majority. These are such different concepts. While on first hearing being ruled by the will of the majority may sound right, it most definitely opens the door to tyranny. Tyranny of the majority. The minority voice is drowned out and policy is relatively unaffected by the needs or concerns of the minority. Tyranny can also come from a minority. Remember the lessons of the American Revolution and how a monarch from across the globe was exacting taxes and ruling over colonists to such a great degree that we broke away from England. A ruling class minority leads to tyranny, too.

Representation and a republic go hand in hand, however. The goal within a republic is to balance the needs of all people of a nation, state, or local community and avoid tyranny of any sort by putting in place checks and balances on power and authority.

With these things in mind, let’s look at each of the theories in the context of expectations of voters and voter engagement in the political world.

Theory One - Trustee Representation

  • Expectations of the Voter - In this model, the people elect a representative they feel will vote their conscience and do what they feel is best whether it represents the views of their constituents, or not.

  • Voter Engagement - Voters don’t necessarily pay attention to politics and policy.

Theory Two - Sociological Representation

  • Expectations of the Voter - This voter looks for a candidate with similar values, ethnicity, religious beliefs, social or educational background, and voting patterns.

  • Voter Engagement - Here again, the voter may not be heavily involved in politics and policy analysis.

Theory Three - Agency Representation

  • Expectations of the Voter - This voter wants a candidate who acts in an agency capacity and carries out the voters’ wishes in the fulfillment of elected duties.

  • Voter Engagement - Voter engagement is high in this model and representatives are held accountable for their actions as elected officials.

As we look at the division and political strife these days, the underlying confusion about what representation really means may be a source of misunderstanding and possibly even deception. If voters are expecting one type of representation and getting another, dissatisfaction follows. If elected officials act in a manner different from the expectations of voters there will be dissatisfaction. If candidates run for office with views of representation differing from their electorate, there will be dissatisfaction.

We’ve come to a point in history where voters and politicians seem to be on greatly different paths. It’s time for all citizens to bolster our understanding of American government structure and function, and act accordingly whether citizen, candidate or incumbent.

What are expectations and outcomes that serve the interests of our Republic?


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