AR; What representation is about

Today- some thoughts about a classic paper by Bernard Manin, from an 1994 issue of Economy and Society. The article clears up a lot of confusion about the idea of representation in politics; identifying its four constitutive principles and thereby establishing what it is – and what it is not.

The four founding principles of representative government are as follows:

  1. Representatives are elected by the governed. Insofar as this is true, representative government is conceptually different from self-governance. In modern representative democracies we do not, strictly speaking, govern ourselves. There is a distance between individual interests of the citizens and political decisions – and this is useful, because this is how a sense of reflexive, higher wisdom can enter politics. (Well, supposedly.)
  2. Representatives have a certain degree of independence from their voters. They are supposed to take into consideration the preferences of their voters, but also to overrule them if they so see fit.
  3. Public opinion on political matters may be expressed outside government control. This is important, because this supposed to guarantee that representatives do care about the voters’ views and preferences. As the 2nd principle has it, representatives are not bound by voters’ opinion, but they must consider it nevertheless.
  4. Policy decisions are made after discussion. This is a corollary of the fact that the representative body is collective and diverse. There is no inherent value in conversation – apart from the fact that it makes mutual understanding and a reaching of the consent of the majority possible.

Manin argues convincingly that these four principles can be detected in all the various forms of representative government that appeared since the 19th century, including the late-20th-century variant, which some consider to be in a bit of a crisis.

For instance – many argue that politics has forfeited substance in favour of the personal, the spectacular, the entertaining. Votes, say critics, are no longer based on issues, but on the superficially perceived personal traits of the candidates.

That might be – counters Manin, but this is not, per se, a problem. Since politicians are elected to deal with future problems, the nature of which is unclear to the voters, trying to assess politicians’ qualities by their personal traits is perfectly reasonable and rational. And while individual images of candidates might carry little information on their own, people are not evaluating these in separation, but taken together, whereby even these systems of “superficial and sensationalist” images can accurately point out the differences between candidates.

Images, notes Manin, are also a good way to overcome the problem posed by the “disproportion between the costs of political information and the hoped for influence on the election outcome”. In other words: it takes a lot of effort to gather and interpret information about politics, while everyone will only have a tiny bit of influence on the political process – so, one could easily ask – why bother? But reliance on images (either in the concrete or in the figurative sense) simplifies the task of voters.

One thing that struck me as odd about the article was, on the other hand, how it talked of “contemporary non-partisan media.” Consider the following quote:

Channels of [contemporary] public communication are politically neutral, i.e., non-partisan. Technological and economic reasons have lead to a decline of the partisan press. […] Moreover, radio and television are established on a non-partisan basis. The rise of popular and non-partisan media has an important consequence: whatever their political preferences, individuals receive the same information on a given subject as everyone else.

I was wondering which particular state Manin had in mind when writing this passage… perhaps he was stillĀ under the influence of the euphoria in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war and of the Soviet Union (the article was published in May 1994). Perhaps in those years, and with certain hefty reserves, one could see these statements are true for some countries for brief periods – albeit rather as an exception than as a rule.

But not to take this quote out of context, it’s also important to underline that Manin writes about the latest manifestation of representative government in opposition to its precursor, the model of “party politics,” where the competition of party platforms dominated the whole of the society – including the sphere of the media. In comparison, the latest period of “floating voters” and image politics might indeed have ushered in a more diverse media system, and one that is less partisan in its character.

Thanks to Johannes Bjerling for drawing my attention to this article.

Manin, Bernard (1994): “The metamorphoses of represntative government,” in: Economy and Society 23(2), 133 – 171.

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