There are two paradoxes at the heart of representative democracy. The first is that the government is elected by a part of the population but is supposed to rule for the whole population. Of course, politicians always say they do represent everybody, but do we believe them? The second paradox is that once elected, politicians are advised by experts who know a lot more than they do about the things they have to decide on, nevertheless, they make the ultimate decisions. What’s worse is that some studies into what politicians know show they know little more than even the general population.
I’d like to suggest that these two paradoxes are not problems to be solved but arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to represent the people, and what it means to have political knowledge. By misunderstanding these basic aspects of democratic decision-making, we have left our institutions of representative democracy open to the twin troubles that have plagued Western democracies since the 70s, increasing polarization and decreasing trust. By understanding these paradoxes and where they come from, we can strive towards more self-aware democratic practices that resist needless polarization and build trust.
Paradox #1 Who do you work for?
Unless a government works by consensus, the government elected by some will be required to rule for all. Advocates for electoral reform might suggest proportional representation and coalitions to improve the situation. But even if governments rule with a coalition of parties representing 80% of the popular vote, the basic tension never goes away. Constitutional minority rights and guaranteed seats such as in New Zealand and Lebanon have also tried ensure minorities are represented or at least respected, but these institutional features are too rigid to capture all the ways one can be a minority. Indeed, every policy issue has its minority opinion.
At its worst, this tension produces cynicism about the whole democratic enterprise (think #NotMyPresident). People do not see a single government for all. Politics is seen as a mere contest in which warring factions and classes attempt to capture institutions. Once the institutions are captured, the concerns of the “barbarians at the gates” (whoever the so-called “barbarians” may be) can be safely ignored, at least for a time. Although these battles may not be fought with arms they work to reinforce existing solitudes and prevent creating the kind of common life which is a precondition of seeking lasting solutions to shared problems.
This polarization has been dismissively referred to as political tribalism. These diagnoses of the problem miss that these are not simply groups for groups sake, but represent real differences in interests, power, and visions of what a better world looks like. Conflict is also a part of politics not a disease to be gotten rid of. The question is whether democratic institutions are merely another battlefield on which these conflicts can play out or is there a way to think of these institutions that is capable of bringing people together across radical disagreements while respecting those disagreements?
Paradox #2 Who’s the boss here?
The second paradox has plagued the public service since it began to professionalize. How are unelected experts supposed to cope with the fact that they must advise democratically elected laymen? This issue has been particularly acute in eras of populist rhetoric. Politicians who “know what the people want” are suspicious and sometimes openly hostile towards “elite” technocrats (setting aside the professional-elite politician for a moment).
Although these two paradoxes may seem unrelated at first, it is by addressing this second question that we will come to appreciate the first.
Harold Laswell, the father of “policy sciences for democracy”. Imagined that policy advisors would be like other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. There is something insightful but incomplete about this analogy though. It is true that, like doctors and lawyers, policy advisors must provide expert advice to a non-expert client in a way that respects their autonomy and empowers them to make the best decision possible. Also like doctors and lawyers, there is a risk of paternalism and control. Recognizing what the layman brings to the table, their knowledge, and the fact that they will ultimately have to live with the consequences is necessary for not only the legitimacy but the quality of the decision. The difference, however, is that for a doctor or lawyer, the client is clear most of the time. It is an individual looking after their own interests. For the policy advisor, their client is a representative.
The question is who are they a representative of? And we come full circle. By paying close attention to the difference between the type of knowledge experts and laymen have, we can begin to answer this question. As I’ve argued before, the politician is not a representative in the sense that they take direction in some direct way from those they represent. They are a representative in the sense that by being placed in a decision making role, they become subject to all the political pressures impinging on a particular decision and thereby experience in a direct way the political dimension of the shared reality which their constituents only feel in a latent and diffuse way. Although a system in which all citizens are active will likely tend to create a more accurate and less skewed picture of that reality, it is not in principle necessary that everyone should participate all the time, only that everyone MUST be considered in any given decision should they have a view or be affected. [In order to both get at this information and guard against distortions, it is therefore necessary that individuals should have the fullest participation rights.]
Ultimately, I believe it is only by appreciating these paradoxes that we can achieve the full democratic potential of the existing systems and grapple with unavoidable logistical limitations of any future systems.