The Idea of Political Representation and Its Paradoxes

by Andrzej Waśkiewicz (Author)
©2020 Monographs 272 Pages
Open Access


If we want to understand the vicissitudes of modern democracy then, argues the author, we need to analyse the ideas upon which representative government is based rather than compare contemporary conditions with the Greek ideal. These principal ideas have been presented clearly in past centuries, when the relation between democracy and representation was still a matter of political judgement. The old masters of political thinking clarified the functions of representation: legitimising power, creating sovereignty but also setting its limits, and pursuing the common good while still reflecting social diversity. Because institutions of representation are expected to fulfil a variety of functions, these institutions have in recent times come under attack for standing in the way of radical programs for democratising democracy. The author of this book reminds us that these functions are necessary in every political order, whether democratic or not. Instead of rejecting representation, political theorists should focus on making government more accountable.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction to the English-language edition
  • Representation as an impediment to democratisation of democracy
  • Representation and the legitimisation of power
  • Aristotle’s Legacy
  • Government in the service of the highest happiness: De regimine by St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Power in the service of the unity of humankind: Monarchy by Dante Alighieri
  • Power by the will of God and the people: The Defender of the Peace by Marsilius of Padua
  • Top-down representation – bottom-up representation: the two sources of legitimisation of secular power
  • Representation and sovereignty of power
  • Sovereign, or unlimited, power
  • Sovereign power against representation: Six Books of the Commonwealth by Jean Bodin
  • Sovereign power, thanks to representation: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
  • Representation: sovereign rule over the author
  • Representation and a limitation of power
  • A limitation of power, or the security of the ruled
  • A representative government of a political society: Second Treatise of the Government by John Locke
  • A power against a power – a party against a party: The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu
  • A balance of interests and a natural elite: The Federalist Papers
  • Representation and limited government: instincts and institutions
  • Representation and the common good
  • The common good and the procedures for defining it
  • Deliberation of the representatives of the nation: ‘Speech to the Electors of Bristol on Being Elected’ by Edmund Burke
  • A reformed Polish diet, i.e. an assembly of accountable delegates: Considerations on the Government of Poland by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • The rule of an intellectual elite in the representative body: Considerations on Representative Government by John Stuart Mill
  • Representation of the common good: representativeness in the representative body and a deliberating elite
  • Representation and social diversity
  • Social diversity as a problem of political institutions
  • Representation of representative interest: James Mill’s Essay on Government
  • The functional representation of associations: George Douglas Howard Cole’s The Social Theory
  • Representation of civil society: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
  • A diversified society and a diversity of representative government
  • A contribution to the normative theory of representation
  • Representation as a concept connecting the normative and descriptive theories of democracy
  • A realistic theory of representative government and ‘another’ theory of democracy by Joseph Schumpeter
  • The paradoxes of the idea of representation, i.e. the classics’ contribution to the contemporary normative theory of representative government
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Introduction to the English-language edition

Even though I had made up my mind to write this book as early as the late 1990s, it was not published in Polish until 2012, as I interrupted writing it to focus on another project. I was motivated mainly by my discontent with the criticism addressed against the institution of representation by deliberative theorists, who are advocates of direct democracy procedures, as well as by supporters of representative government who wish to make institutions of representative democracy more representative through an inclusion of the voices of minorities. As I am a historian of social and political ideas, what irked me was the fact that the critics of representation attributed to the institution of representation a purely ancillary role in relation to democratic ideas. Slightly simplifying the matter, one could say that both critics and reformers expected representation to be a transmission belt1 for the will of the people, transferring it to the legislative forum. Such an approach ignores both the complexity of the very idea of representation and the multiplicity of the functions it may, according to the classics of political thought, perform in various political systems. My book was meant precisely to demonstrate that complexity and multiplicity in the historical aspect.

At that time, the classic work devoted to the idea of representation was The Concept of Representation by Hanna Pitkin2. Published in 1967, it was marked by logical positivism, which made the author seek in history the ‘proper’ meaning of the act of representation. Such an approach not only ignored the historical context of the texts under analysis, but also upheld the philosophical fiction of a universal glossary of political terms, methodologically false and completely obsolete in the era of proliferation of democratic ideas. Even if we assume that in the era of unchallenged democracy the only possible point of contention is which values are constitutive to it and what they mean in given social realities, to expect that those disputes will end in a consensus would be tantamount to a recognition that politics is deprived of its live ideological dimension and that the sphere of material interests remains its only domain. Disputes over the role of the institutions do also fall into the category of disputes over values. The old masters of political thought envisioned representation as playing roles quite ←9 | 10→different from those intended to perform in contemporary democracy, which itself is a hotly disputed subject. My book was meant to demonstrate that these disputes already have their own history, and this history reveals the paradoxes of the idea itself.

As I was finishing writing the Polish version back in 2010, I already knew that I was not the only one dissatisfied with the state of reflection on representation 10 years ago3. The representative turn had been underway for a few years at that point, even though it was still in its early stages; characteristically, its first summing up invokes works still in press4. Those responsible for the representative turn included not only political scientists and theorists, but also normative democratic theorists, who were irritated by the oversophistication and detachment from empirical reality displayed by the deliberative turn authors. Without being uncritical apologists for representative democracy or questioning the need for institutional innovation, they demonstrated the complexity of the relation of representation, as well as, to a lesser degree, its normative aspect. However, they measured it against the democratic yardstick; to them, representation is the better the better it complies with democratic values. That is why my book, which shows the normative aspects of representation, whether it serves democracy or some other form of government (except for tyranny), allows the reader to understand and assess it in the context of its functions, both the formal, enshrined in constitutions, and those that are informal, but predicted by political theorists, and occasionally even by the authors of constitutions.

Making up my mind to have this book published in English several years after its Polish edition, I had to decide how to deal with the representative turn ←10 | 11→literature, published both prior to and after publication of my book in Polish. The reader familiar with the most recent works will easily note that apart from that normative aspect, many of the findings of political theorists and empiricists overlapped with the conclusions I had myself arrived at while reading the classics of political thought. As my arguments were already set in stone at the time of the Polish edition, I decided to comment on the works of contemporary authors only in the Introduction and in extensive footnotes concerning crucial questions. In the English edition, I decided to stick to this arrangement. Inadvertently, and therefore only to a limited degree, my book thus became a iunctim between the earlier and contemporary reflection on political representation.

There is one more way in which history is combined with the present in my book. Namely, it is a historical study with a moral. Even though I use historical texts as my sources, I draw from them a conclusion concerning present-day politics and political theory. It could not have been otherwise, as I was motivated by the wish to defend representation against theorists of permanent democratisation of democracy. In the conclusion of my work I indicate several points on which to build a theory of representative government, normative, but realistic at the same time. An element of realism in this theory is more than merely recognising that there is no democracy without representation5: it consists in accepting Schumpeter’s claim with Locke’s proviso that in democracy political elites rule by the consent of the people and not the people with the assistance of their representatives. Accordingly, the normative aspect of that theory does not consist prima facie in the inclusiveness of the demos, but in the responsibility of the representatives for a diversified civitas.

Creating that kind of theory goes beyond the competences of a historian of ideas; however, history itself may only be a source of inspiration here. For whatever methodological purists may think, one reads great historical writings through the prism of present interests, but one should not look to them for definitive answers to contemporary questions. If I had known the works by the representative turn authors before writing this book, it would not have had that moral, but I am not sure if I would have had enough motivation to write it at all. Perhaps sometimes, it is really better not to know.

←11 | 12→←12 | 13→

1 This concept is critically discussed by Nancy L. Schwartz, The Blue Guitar. Political Representation and Community (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988).

2 Hanna Pitkin, The Concept of Representation (Berkley – Los Angeles – London: University of California Press, 1967).

3 I had earlier presented my idea of representation interpreted as a social relation in English in a form close to a Simmelian essay; cf. Andrzej Waśkiewicz, ‘Representation as Social Relation,’ Polish Sociological Review, No. 3 (2010).

4 Cf. Nadia Urbinati, Mark E. Warren, ‘The Concept of Representation in Contemporary Political Theory,’ Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 2 (2008); cf. also an earlier article by Mark E. Warren, Dario Castiglione, ‘The Transformation of Democratic Representation,’ Democracy and Society, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004). A work by David Runciman and Mónica Brito Vieira, Representation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008) sums up the first wave of the representative turn, and an Introduction to a book by Mónica Brito Vieira (ed.), Reclaiming Representation. Contemporary Advances in the Theory of Political Representation (New York and London: Routledge, 2017) provides a summary of the later literature.

5 A point raised by David Plotke in the middle of the deliberative turn: ‘Representation is Democracy,’ Constellations, No. 4 (1997).

Representation as an impediment to democratisation of democracy

Contemporary normative political theory has not had much good to say about democracy as it is, or democracy in the shape it has assumed in the Western world, even though it no longer harbours any illusions that it exists outside it at all. Actually, what characterises the vast majority of the numerous models of democracy – states built by philosophers ‘in mind’ – is nothing other than attempts to democratise it. Accordingly, ‘true’ democracy is to be an assembly, associative, communicative, cosmopolitan, deliberative, direct, discursive, ecological, industrial, participative, pluralist, radical, referendums, reflexive, people’s and, last but not least, virtual democracy (e-democracy)6.

This long list by no means testifies to a wealth of alternatives to the form of government described by its critics most delicately as an elitist or party democracy; the only thing it testifies to is the degree of discontent at its condition. Supposedly, the fundamental flaw, the original sin of that form of government is its having been dominated by an ideology that is at least ambivalent towards political commitment by citizens, or that ‘the power of the people’ has been institutionalised in it in a manner that completely distorts its essence, for which, incidentally, the same ideology is blamed. The first current of this criticism dates back to the time when democracy was still an idea leading the people to barricades, while the second has its source in disillusionment with democratic rule.

Differing as to the diagnosis of the current situation, the critics belonging to both currents are united in sending their readers back to ancient Greece, to the Athens of the Golden Age, so that they can find there the proper ‘promise of politics’, as recalled by Hannah Arendt and other 20th-century philosophers, looking for solutions to present-day maladies in antiquity. Allegedly, it is the modern liberal ideas and institutions of representation that have deprived the citizens of the experience of common action in the public forum, turning them into mere clients of government administration, jealously guarding their individual entitlements. Contemporary democracy, with all the pathologies it has been grappling with for over a hundred years, is confronted (in books as popular ←13 | 14→as Strong Democracy by Benjamin Barber, to mention only one of the most well-known ones) with the ideal of the polis derived from Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

Focusing on the problem of democratic deficit in institutions of power, advocates of their democratisation seem to fail to understand the complex character of the very idea of representation and the multiple functions it plays in its institutionalised form in the entire political system. For its role cannot be reduced to the exercise of power by the nominal sovereign through a small group of decision-makers. In reality, as will be discussed in this book, representation also legitimises their power, grants to representatives important rights vis-à-vis the represented, and at the same time prevents the abuse of those rights to the detriment of the ruled; it is also to serve in defining the common interest of the community as a whole, while at the same time reflecting the diversification of group interests.

The institution of representation could not perform any of these functions if it were completely subordinated to the idea of a representative body expressing the will of the people; however, these functions enmesh it in inevitable paradoxes which compromise it in the eyes of ‘strong’ democrats. Indeed, the latter are not far from the truth: the idea of representation is as democratic as it is anti-democratic and may serve virtually any form of government with the exception of a classical tyranny. Its institutionalisation in the democratic political system has concealed these paradoxes, however, while bringing the problems of the institution itself to the foreground – problems such as electoral law or the size of constituencies, which preoccupy political scientists nowadays, but which remain outside the horizon of philosophers’ interests7.

That is why in order to comprehend the actual promise of politics in a contemporary democracy, it must not be derived from the Greek ideal of government by the people; rather, one should analyse the ideas upon which representative government is founded. For the fact that power is exercised by the category of professional politicians is more important to this form of government than the fact that it is formed by means of a universal election; such professional politicians may be defined as those living for politics and off politics, as Max Weber put it as early as the beginning of the last century. And even if in the long term each democracy is ←14 | 15→indeed, according to Abraham Lincoln’s formula, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, then in the spirit of Thomas Hobbes one might say that people would have to live very long indeed in order to experience that. The above-mentioned critics of representation, therefore, deserve some credit; they make all those who have failed to note it realise that democracy is not the power of the demos any more, and do so in an outspoken and spectacular way. One can only regret that their outrage at this state of affairs precedes an attempt to understand it.

A favourable interest in the idea and institutions of representation has appeared only in recent years. A representative turn has replaced the deliberative turn and brought a comprehensive, theoretically interesting interpretation, based on empirical data, of the relationship of representation in politics8, which may also benefit scholars studying the idea of representation as well as the history of that idea. From the perspective of the present work, of particular value are articles by Andrew Rehfeld, as well as by Jane Mansbridge and Michael Saward9. Naturally, the representative turn has not brought an unambiguous answer to the question of what representation is about10; quite the contrary, it demonstrated its complexity in the contemporary political system. In a ground-breaking article based on empirical research, Jane Mansbridge also distinguished, in addition to traditional or promissory representation, its three new types: ‘anticipatory’ (of the future constituency), ‘gyroscopic’ (the representative being one of the typical constituency members) and ‘surrogate’ (for the constituency absent in ←15 | 16→parliament)11. None of these forms has appeared as a clear-cut idea, and in the absence of a clearly defined constituency, the accountability of representatives of that kind is a problematic question.

The representative turn cannot be said to have made an equally ground-breaking contribution to normative theory. Of greater importance to it were undoubtedly the works by authors such as Anne Philips, Iris Young or Will Kymlicka, who expected greater representativeness from representative democracy, i.e. a correction to make its institutions reflect the interests of women and ethnic minorities to a greater degree12. Among the representative turn authors, Nadia Urbinati follows the idea of John Stuart Mill and presents representation as advocacy13, which includes, among other things, deliberation with advocates of other interests. Suzane Dovi on her part argues14 that, contrary to what its critics claim, representation does not exclude citizens and does not turn an election into a plebiscite; quite the contrary, a good representative in a democracy, characterised by the three virtues she distinguishes (fair-mindedness, critical trust building and good gate-keeping), is meant to work towards increasing their political activism.

In the most exhaustive work belonging to this current, Andrew Sabl addresses the subject of politicians’ obligations towards the people they represent, invoking Cicero’s category of offices15 and illustrating his theoretical considerations with positive as well as negative examples from the most recent US history. Thus he draws his conclusions as much from the classic writings, from Aristotle to Tocqueville, as from analyses of biographies. The author argues that one cannot speak here of a single political ethic, but rather of ‘governing pluralism’, i.e. of a mutual complementation of three distinct ethoses: those of a senator, moral activist and community organiser16.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (December)
Representation Legitimisation of power Sovereignty of power Limitation of power Common good Social diversity
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 272 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrzej Waśkiewicz (Author)

Andrzej Waśkiewicz teaches history of social and political ideas at the Institute of Sociology and the Collegium Artes Liberales, University of Warsaw. He has authored numerous publications, including books on asocial philosophy of life, political theory and methods of its interpretation.


Title: The Idea of Political Representation and Its Paradoxes
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