When we delegate decision-making to other people (to representatives), we create a new set of challenges: We have to keep our eyes out on our representatives to make sure they do what we want and that they don’t take advantage of the fact that we can’t watch their every move. But how important is it that we keep close tabs on our representatives?
Representative: A Delegate?
The answer to the question above depends on whether the representative is a delegate or a trustee.
In representative democracy, there are two views on how we want our representatives to represent us. Some people see the proper role of a representative as being that of a delegate. In this view, a representative should be our advocate: someone we send to Washington or Ottawa or Dublin who acts as our proxy, advocating for issues and making decisions that we ourselves would make if we were there.
That’s called the delegate model of representation, and it’s probably the way that most of us think of a representative’s job.
Representative: A Trustee?
But there’s a contrasting view—a more conservative view—which holds that a representative isn’t so much our delegate as our trustee. In this view, the representative is there to make decisions in our place.
In the trustee model, we entrust our representative with the ability to make important decisions on our behalf, even if those decisions aren’t necessarily in our interest. The argument supporting this view is that representatives specialize in these things. They have the time and expertise to learn about the issues firsthand, and as a result, they’re more qualified than we are to know what the best decision is. Voters like this might also be inclined to vote based on things like experience or judgment, and less on specific policy positions.
Delegate Versus Trustee
This debate about the nature of representation is as old as representative democracy itself, and it adds yet another dimension to the issue of voter ignorance and the degree to which it matters.
If we think of representatives as delegates, then the electorate has to know what their representatives are up to, and has to be able to hold their feet to the fire if they’re not faithful advocates of our interests.
On the other hand, if you think of your representative as a trustee, well, then you’ll trust them to make decisions for you. In that case, ignorance of the ordinary voter doesn’t really matter as much.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
National and Local Interests
But, it’s helpful to keep the debate in mind because this distinction often lurks in the background on a number of other contentious issues. Whether we think our representatives should be delegates or trustees might affect our views not just on voter ignorance but about how government transparency should work, or about who a representative should really represent when, say, national and regional interests come into conflict.
Because that’s another potential problem with representative democracy: National interests and regional interests don’t always line up. And representative democracy invites us to think more about our local interests, even when they might be damaging to the polity as a whole.
Conflict of Interest
This was a really big issue after the Cold War. As international tensions dissipated, a lot of Western democracies started to think about closing down military bases. Bases are expensive to maintain, and this looked like an easy way to cut costs. The problem is that individual communities often benefit from having a base nearby. It’s a boon to the local economy, and so closing a base down means the people lose jobs.
So, what’s an individual representative to do? Does he or she represent the community, which means the nation is saddled with maintaining bases that it doesn’t need? Or does he or she represent what’s in the national interest, even if that might hurt the local economy?
In a democracy where representatives represent local districts, leaders are often forced to look out for local interests, even when those go against the interests of the nation as a whole.
The Present and the Future
Democratic leaders also find themselves torn between the present and the future. Democracies have a real problem when it comes to long-term planning. How do you convince voters to pay for something now, when the payoff might be years or even decades in the future?
For democratic leaders, the most obvious time horizon is the next election. For a representative, one would want to do things that are going to pay off in time for the next election campaign. So, what happens when our representatives have to make us temporarily unhappy in order to bring about a better future?
The Case of Apollo Space Program
Think about something like the Apollo space program: the plan to put men on the moon and return them safely to earth. President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech about the lunar program in September 1962.
But the moon landing didn’t happen until seven years and two presidents later, in July 1969. That’s why the plaque that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placed on the moon was signed by President Nixon, even though it was Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson who oversaw the program, devoted resources to paying for it, and ultimately imposed the financial burden of the program on the American people.
Things like this happen all the time, and they can pose serious problems for democracies. Think about deficit spending. That’s another long-term/short-term dilemma. For a politician, the only thing better than paying for a popular social program is getting a popular social program and leaving your successors—or the next generation—to pay the bill! Even though this is unethical and improper, problems such as these are endemic to democracy.
Common Questions about Conflicts and Challenges in Representative Democracy
In the delegate model, the role of a representative is that of a delegate. So, a representative should be our advocate: someone we send to Washington or Ottawa or Dublin who acts as our proxy, advocating for issues and making decisions that we ourselves would make if we were there.
In the trustee model, we entrust our representative with the ability to make important decisions on our behalf, even if those decisions aren’t necessarily in our interest.
One of the potential problem with representative democracy is that the national interests and regional interests don’t always line up. And representative democracy invites us to think more about our local interests, even when they might be damaging to the polity as a whole.