Can Democratic Representation Work?

Part 1 — The Importance of Starting With the Right Questions

When I published my previous article on Balanced Democracy, I felt like I’d finally caught the ghost I had been chasing for years. There I had it, an elegant system based on just two simple principles representing the best way to do politics.

I felt I had argued my case well and the future seemed crystal clear: I now had to demonstrate how and why Balanced Democracy was better than all other political systems.

Still fueled by the elation of perceived accomplishment, I soldiered on without pause. But something wasn’t right. Slowly and gradually, work ground to a screeching halt as I got transported from the shiny plateau of creation with clear purpose to the valley of conceptual darkness.

It took me a few days to really put my finger on exactly what was wrong. When it finally clicked, the floodgates of professional shame snapped open. Despite a Ph.D. degree and over a decade of experience in research, I was going about my entire project completely backwards!

The right way of introducing a new theory, concept, or system, is not to define it and support it with amped-up arguments while downplaying those that work against it.

In science as in life, valuable inquiry begins not with solid answers, but the right questions. The one I should have started with is:

1. What’s the best way to do politics? In other words, What’s the best way for groups of people to make (policy) decisions?

How could we go about answering this question? Turns out, this is not the hard part yet. First, we need a list of existing or proposed political systems. Then, we need to establish a set of criteria and use it to decide how each system does on each. So the logical next question is,

2. What criteria should we use to compare political systems?

Comparative politics and political theory offer several enticing possibilities. Before my work is done, I will give each of them due consideration when coming up with my complete final list.

It turns out, however, that one of these alone provides enough material to fill an entire article series. This first criterion central to my next posts is one of the fundamental principles of democracy known as representation.

To phrase it as a question,

3. How good is the given political system at giving people what they want?

Image credit: Shutterstock

The concept of democratic representation rests upon the principle that elected leaders follow the will of the people. They make policy in accordance with the policy views or preferences of their electorate. So if you think the politicians that represent you should do what you want them to do (instead of, for example, ‘following their own conscience’), you should definitely care about how well representation works in the political system of your city, state, or country.

This leads us directly to our next question, the only one we’ll actually answer in this particular article. To answer how good representation is, we first need to understand

4. How is representation supposed to work?

The most efficient way to illustrate this process is via an example. After careful consideration, I’ve landed on the issue of abortion for three main reasons.

First, it’s simple in scope. Everybody knows what abortion is: the termination of a pregnancy.

Second, it’s highly salient. Most of us have heard about the issue and encountered, at minimum, some of the relevant arguments. According to a Gallup poll conducted between May 1–13, 2020, 24% of a nationally representative sample of American adults said the candidate they may consider must share their views on abortion. A further 47% said it was ‘one of many important factors’. Moreover, abortion’s prevalence is not limited to the United States: as this UN report suggests, virtually all countries have some policies in place regulating abortion, presumably at least in part following the public’s preferences.

Third, it’s contentious. It was a hotly debated issue when the landmark case of Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, and has remained so to this day.

Based on Gallup’s polls, the overwhelming majority (fairly consistently about 94%) of Americans place themselves on either side of the abortion issue. In the most recent wave of May 1–13, 2020, 48% of a nationally representative sample of adults identified as pro-choice; 46% as pro-life; 4% as mixed/neither; and 2% indicated they did not know what that term means.

The pro-choice side typically phrases abortion as a freedom/rights issue. A typical argument would be something like “I’m pro-choice because I believe in women’s freedom to choose what they want to do with their bodies as it involves their health and future.” Or “my body, my choice” for short. In this version of the story, those with a pro-choice attitude are champions of women’s rights and freedom.

In contrast, the pro-life side commonly portrays itself as the protector of babies. As President Trump summed it up in his characteristically succinct and exaggerated fashion: “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.” People on the pro-life side on the spectrum typically frame abortion as a right to life issue, along the lines of “I’m pro-life because I believe that life begins at conception and the fetus’s right to life must be protected above all else.”

The sharp divide between the two camps should, perhaps, not be surprising. The for/against (pro/con) paradigm dominates political discourse. It is so pervasive that most of us don’t even question it anymore.

It is as standard practice in political debates as in the court of law and at most dinner table conversations that involve politics. Even Kialo, the best comprehensive debate website I’m aware of, uses the pro/con framework as its universal organizing principle.

Accordingly, the pro-con paradigm is crucial for the commonly accepted story of representation.

The broad-strokes-version of the narrative starts with the very observation that the public is divided into two camps on either side of any given policy area. In each region represented by a politician (or a party), either those on the pro or those on the con side are in the majority. The job of the representative is enact legislation accordingly.

In short, if most of your voters are pro-life, you should make pro-life policy.

But what exactly is ‘pro-life’ legislation? The simple answer is: everything that makes abortion harder or impossible. So if you, for example, manage to make third-semester abortions illegal in your state; or introduce mandatory counseling sessions as a barrier, you’ve done your part in representing your pro-life electorate.

It’s a neat story and one that no doubt resonates with most of us. So what is the problem? Let me demonstrate that by posing a few more questions regarding how the pro/con narrative applies in two specific scenarios.

The mother, Jane Roe, is a 17-year-old orphan from an ethnic minority who only had one sexual ‘intercourse’ in her life when she was raped by her foster father. She now lives in an institution with no support to rely on from anyone on the outside. Unable to cope with the trauma and her changed life circumstances, she’s continued to drink alcohol regularly and smoke a pack of cigarettes per day. Missing a period is not completely unusual to her so she’s just realized she’s pregnant with an 11-week-old fetus. The fetus has a rare mutation which provides a 100% chance that he or she will be unable to speak, think beyond the level of a 2-year-old, and care for itself as a grown-up. The pregnancy severely threatens the mother’s life and there’s a fair chance she’ll die during delivery.

If you identify as pro-choice, this one is a no-brainer. If you are, however, pro-life, do you still think it’s a bad idea to grant this woman the possibility to have an abortion?

You may, but you’d most likely be in a tiny minority. According to General Social Survey data (if you’re more interested in a summary, you’ll find it here), most Americans think a woman should be able to get an abortion when her own health is seriously endangered. The exact number is 92% among strong Democrats and 82% among strong Republicans. The same statistic ranges between 54% (73% if we exclude strong Republicans) and 90% when the pregnancy is the result of rape. Moreover, between 58% and 89% Americans think abortion should be an option if there is a strong chance for serious defect in the fetus. Considering our mother’s case ticks all these boxes and more, it’s likely that the vast majority (95% at least) would say she should have the option to abort.

If outlawing abortion is not your desire (or not an option in your state or country), how would you feel about having Jane Roe sit through a lecture about how her fetus feels pain or how having an abortion will increase her health risks? And what is your take on having your state or country cover the costs of the procedure as she obviously can’t afford it?

I’ll get back to the importance of such questions shortly. For now, let’s focus on the second scenario.

Jane Doe, 25, became pregnant by choice and has a 33-week old perfectly healthy baby girl. The pregnancy poses no known risks to the mother or the child. Jane lives in a good relationship and both she and her partner have steady jobs that provide them five times the average income. The father and families on both sides greatly look forward to the birth of their little girl and are ready to care for her financially, psychologically and emotionally. There is also a couple lined up to adopt her right after delivery if need be. Still, Jane decided she does not want to go through with her pregnancy.

This one is probably open and shut if you’re pro-life. What if you are pro-choice? This one is more difficult to estimate. What we do know is that between 23% and 55% of people believe abortion should be legal for any reason, so the number of people believing Jane Doe should have this option is presumably below 23%. Let’s say you are in that minority and think abortion is totally okay in her case. Would you be okay with a law requiring doctors to inform Jane about alternatives to abortion before performing the procedure? What about a law to obtain the informed consent of the father?

Some of these questions may have made you uncomfortable, especially if you strongly identify as pro-choice or pro-life.

But surely, these scenarios are merely exaggerated exceptions, aren’t they? By and large, your pro-choice or pro-life view still stands, right?

That would have to depend on how many ‘exceptions’ there are.

The two scenarios above contain the seed of many other possibilities. Would your view change if all other variables were equal but Jane Roe’s pregnancy posed no health risk to her? What if there was significant health risk but no known risk for the fetus to be deficient? Would your view change if all of Jane Doe’s circumstances were the same except she and here entire family were living off welfare?

There are many more such questions we could, should, and will ask in this series of posts.

I hope by this point they made you at least slightly confused or conflicted about your view on abortion. To make sure there’s no confusion about what I’m getting at, here’s the main point.

We use generalizations and heuristics all the time in our attempt to understand the world. Some of these generalizations are reasonably good representations of the underlying reality, some are not even close. To translate this observation into a question,

5. How good is the for/against paradigm for democratic representation?

In other words, how much of your entire policy view on abortion is retained in the pro-choice/pro-life label? How many of all scenarios and specific policy measures does it cover and how well? Can policymakers rely on pro/con attitudes to decide what legislation to make?

It is this slew of closely related questions I will attempt to answer in my next several articles.

The first and most important step will be to provide a comprehensive overview of exactly what is supposed to be compressed into the pro-choice/pro-life labels. So we’ll start by uncovering the full gamut of a policy view. As a happy collateral benefit, this process will also grant you the ability to win (or at least not lose) every policy debate you ever attend. Then we’ll work our way backwards and answer the crucial question of how good representation can be in different political systems.

These five questions I posed in this article may not be sexy, but they are crucially important for politics, which makes them relevant for the present and future of each and every one of us. So let’s ride their wave and see where it takes us! If we do it right, the journey may once again prove more rewarding than the destination.

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.

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