Problems with Representation

There are problems with representation as a way of letting the population choose how it wants to be governed, with any system of voting.

When politicians are elected in a representative democracy the voters are allowed to make only one choice, at election time, without any way of expressing preferences about individual issues or about unforeseen circumstances.  And there are other problems:

●  No system of voting can ensure that everyone’s preferences are represented in a democracy ( There will always be some people who had voted against the elected government, so they will always feel that they are not adequately represented.

●  Politicians may be imbued by their own moral values, religious convictions and political ideologies, to such an extent that they are unable to empathise with those whose views they do not share – despite having a duty to represent them.

●  A politician’s religious convictions can be problematic if they lead to political discrimination. For example, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement had its origins in grievances which led to the sectarian violence known as ‘the Troubles’, as illustrated by this incident:

“In June 1968 disputes over housing allocation reached flashpoint when it was revealed that a house in Caledon, County Tyrone, had been given to a single Protestant woman employed by a Unionist politician, ahead of several large Catholic families.”

●  The political system acts as a buffer between the people and those who are providing public services. As noted earlier in this chapter (6.3.3), the performance of politicians is important; they should be able to act as interpreters and negotiators in the interests of the people – but they might merely prevent clear communication.

As described below, these problems with representation can be mitigated: by involving individual citizens (6.5.2), by consulting them (6.5.3), by distributing political power through appropriate subsidiarity (6.6.2), by giving people the freedom to influence those in power (6.8.3), and by holding politicians to account (6.8.5).


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6514a.htm