What does it mean to be a ‘representative?’

For the Monitor
Published: 3/7/2021 9:00:26 AM

What does it mean to be an elected representative? Specifically, how do you think your elected representatives should represent you?

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” This interpretation of representation, which later became known as the “trustee” model, was offered by Edmund Burke, an Irish philosopher and Member of Parliament, in his 1774 speech to the Electors of Bristol.

In the trustee model of representation, people consider all the information they have available about the respective candidates before them, including those candidates’ characters, positions on issues, political histories, etc. Finally, the people vote for the person they believe will best represent their interests in a given office. The elected representative’s job then is to immerse herself in public affairs, learn the details of all issues to an extent that is often impossible for the general public, and make judgment calls on behalf of her constituents.

The opposing model to trustee representation is “delegate” representation, in which the elected representative is expected to act more like a conduit for his constituents, consulting as much as possible with those who elected him and supporting or opposing policies based solely on what he knows of their thoughts, feelings and reasons. Presumably, modern-day representation under this model includes significant amounts of polling and a heavy reliance on constituent input via phone calls, emails, town hall commentary, etc. The representative will sometimes need to make decisions based on his own judgment, of course, but more often he should have a good enough sense of what his constituents think about a given issue that he can rely on that knowledge to make decisions.

Which of these models of representation do you think is better? What do you expect from your elected representatives – your state legislators, your executive councilor, your congressperson and U.S. senators, your governor and your president? Presumably, you don’t vote for people whom you believe to have poor character or poor judgment. (Right? RIGHT?) When you check a box beside someone’s name for state representative, you (hopefully) have done some vetting; perhaps you rely on the advice of a trusted friend, neighbor or political party. However you get there, on Election Day you have some confidence that the candidate next to your checkmark sees the world at least somewhat like you do, and you trust her to represent your worldview more often than not. You expect she’ll mostly exercise her judgment within boundaries not too far from yours. And if she doesn’t, you’ll vote to replace her in the next election.

Or maybe you check the box next to the candidate to whom you’ve spoken several times at the diner.

You may know him because he holds listening sessions twice each month, and you’ve actually watched him form opinions on issues you care about after talking to you and your neighbors. His views are always in line with the majority of people in the district, it seems, although a large minority in the district are deeply frustrated that no matter what they say, he won’t vote in their interests. Critics say he doesn’t think for himself; he replies that he’s just doing what the majority of his constituents support – and he’s not wrong.

Who maintains the better approach to representation?

I’ll posit that in reality, representation should involve a mix of both trustee and delegate functions. In fact, a representative determined to do her job well probably ought to wrestle with the tension between the two on a regular basis. To use a favorite law school theoretical, if a bill regulating widgets is before the legislature, legislators ought to consider how their constituents feel about widgets, and what effects the widget bill might have on the people she serves. It might be worth consulting some of those people – experts and laypeople alike. But perhaps the legislator is a widget expert herself, or, more commonly, the legislator has access to information about other issues that might impact the widget issue to which her constituents aren’t privy. It’s up to the legislator to determine how much weight to give each piece of the puzzle, and what to do with that puzzle when she assembles it. At all times, the representative knows that she will be accountable to the voters for that and every other vote.

So what do you expect your representative to do when presented with legislation he opposes but is supported by, say, 60 percent of the people in his district? What if the percentage is 75 percent? What if it’s 90 percent? What if it’s 65 percent but the representative is a genuine subject-matter expert and strongly believes it’s a bad bill? Should he exercise the good judgment you believe him to have? Or should he vote with the statistical majority in his district?

The one certainty in these questions is that your representatives owe you the truth. You have the civic responsibility to choose good representatives and to evaluate their performance. Your representatives in turn have the responsibility to do the work, to treat you and the responsibility with which you have entrusted them with respect, and to report back to you in an honest manner. Everyone stumbles a little; we’re all human. But the foundation of any model of representation is integrity and accountability, and in exchange for your vote, you have a right to expect honesty and respect from those you elect.

And if you don’t receive those things, well, that’s what the next elections are for.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a New Hampshire writer and public policy advocate.)

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