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Who and What Ought Government Represent?

With the close of another presidential election cycle, we once again heard complaints about the Electoral College, that mysterious group of appointees sent from each state to officially choose the next president in accordance with formulae determined by each state. That most states choose the formula of committing all their electors to the candidate who wins the plurality of votes in that state’s popular election is coincidental and established by no federal mandate. At any rate, the fact that more and more people in this country think this to be an undemocratic way of choosing a president might give us pause to reflect on what it means for government to be representative in the first place. 

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The description of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” doesn’t solve the problem, since here at issue is not just who it is to be represented, but the manner of representation.  Still, it is important to settle who “the people” are or ought to be, so let’s start there. 

One common assumption is that the people are the citizens of the state or nation in question. But this leaves out all other residents. Should government only represent its citizens and not its residents? If so, would that not quite probably lead to a form of tyranny by citizens over non-citizens?

Perhaps one might agree to extend the representation, but only to legal residents. But there are strong considerations – both of a utilitarian and non-utilitarian nature – arguing for inclusion of illegal residents as well. Not to represent them is either to ignore their presence or to oppose their presence. Either policy leads to social chaos, since such a large group as this cannot be easily removed or treated with contempt without a great deal of harm not only to them, but to citizens and other legal residents as well.

 A final thought on the “who” question is that we may be on the verge of having to recognize that our president must in some significant sense represent not just citizens and residents of this land, but of the whole world.

As to the manner of representation, baffled by the Electoral College are perhaps taken by the assumption that government‘s representative duty is exclusively to the individual.  But this is clearly not how America’s forefathers thought, and their reasons are grounded in the fear of what John Stuart Mill called the Tyranny of the Majority: that  a majority can stifle the voice and political life of minority voices and thus thwart the benefits of democracy, which are grounded in freedom of speech and cultivation of diversity of opinion.

To offset the likelihood of a Tyranny of the Majority requires a republic to balance individual representation against another form of representation; typically either geographical: typically in the form of smaller units of government – in our case, states – or political: typically in the form of proportionate representation of political parties – a common feature of parliamentary democracies.

The logistics of balancing one form of democratic representation against another does not make for a neat process. But the messiness of it should not be cause for us to forget the real danger such admittedly awkward balancing acts are attempting to avert.

American government is really a compromise between a democracy of individuals and a democracy of states. The notion of a democracy of states was the founding principle of the Articles of Confederation, our nation’s first constitution. To be sure, each of the thirteen states already had some conception of individual democracy within it. But it is only our second and current constitution in which the notion of a democracy of individuals appears on the national level, blended with the notion of a democracy of states inherited from the previous constitution.

 If we think it right to elect presidents by a national popular vote, the federal concept will thereby be weakened and we may be more than one step closer to being a tyranny of the majority. For if we think the Electoral College is unfair, then perhaps we should also oppose each state having two senators. After all, why should a state with 200 thousand residents have the same number of senators as a state with 38 million? That’s far from one-man-one-vote.

My point is that we ought to take more seriously the case that a just democracy cannot be conceived as simply a democracy of individuals on the grounds that this is a formula for tyranny – by the majority.

Instead of trying rashly to reinvent the wheel, I suggest a wise renovation of the wheel we have. For example, there is no compelling reason why each state should have to commit all its electors unanimously to one candidate. In fact, Maine and Nebraska don’t do it this way. 

Most other democracies in the world attempt to achieve a healthy balance by granting proportionate representation to political parties. If a party wins,say,15% of the popular vote, it wins a 15% representation in government. If anything, this is more complicated than what we have. But it goes quite a bit farther in assuring that significant minority voices get heard.


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