Representation is a central tenet of democracy.
We generally want our politicians to make policy according to what we, the people, want.
If you feel that way and think that politics is important, you should read on because I will demonstrate that this is close to impossible.
Okay, the title was a bit of a clickbait. I will not ‘prove’ that democratic representation can’t work in the mathematical sense of the word. What I will show is that it can only occur with very severe limitations that are built into the very system of politics as we know it.
Let’s start with how representation is supposed to work for a single policy issue.
The very short story of democratic representation
On the subject of abortion, you identify as pro-life. (I picked one side of ‘the abortion coin’ at random. The argument would be identical if I’d used pro-choice instead). You have a couple of arguments you can brig up to support your view if pressed in a discussion or debate.
There are two candidates that want to represent you. One of them is clearly pro-life and the other is clearly pro-choice.
You vote for the pro-life candidate. Their view may not be a perfect match to yours but it’s close enough to make the decision fast and simple. If your candidate gets elected, they will do their best to make pro-life legislation. If they fail, you’ll vote them out of office in the next cycle.
And that’s it. This nice and simple story is the dominant paradigm for judging whether representation occurs. Its focal narrative has been so commonly accepted (and so often repeated) that we rarely question it anymore.
So what’s the problem?
Let’s start with a very simplified visual representation of the story above.
The problem arises from two sources. Both are related to policy view quality and neither constitutes a novel insight. Taken together, however, they have dire consequences for democratic representation.
1. Policy is always complex
In my past articles I’ve broken down abortion into 70 components. This number provides a fairly good indication of just how complex abortion is and I’m fairly convinced it would not be much lower for other issues.
2. The vast majority of policy views are simple
It is highly likely that most of us would score less than 7 points on this 70-point scale. (Except those of you who read my previous articles or did your own research. You should be fine on abortion.)
Which gives me the opportunity to make it clear that I do not use ‘simple’ in a derogatory sense.
My own views are simple on the overwhelming majority of policy issues and I’ve invested hundreds of hours into thinking about them after I received my Ph.D. in political science.
There are hundreds of issues out there and finding information alone takes a lot time. Then you have to structure the information and critically analyze what you found. Among the competing priorities all of us juggle on a daily basis, it is completely understandable not to dedicate much time to something like policy.
Putting these two points together allows us to phrase the problem as:
3. We’re trying to control something complex (policy) with something simple (policy view)
The common postulate is that the information contained within the pro-choice/pro-life stance (steps 1 & 2 of Figure 1) is enough to guide policy (step 3).
But that’s just an assumption, not a fact. As usual in such cases, we can turn it into a question, or rather a series of closely related questions.
Is enough information retained in a simple pro/con view? Does ‘pro-choice’ legislation exist? Can you be pro-life in one way, two ways, or 64 ways? Is pro-life/pro-choice good enough?
You’ve probably guessed that the answer I lean strongly toward is no. Let’s see why.
(If you’re only interested in the outcome of the analysis and not the process, feel encouraged to skip to the Conclusion section.)
Why pro-life/pro-choice is not good enough
Let’s start with Figure 2, which details the first four main components of a comprehensive policy view on abortion (pulled from this article).
I argue that a simple view …
… has limited potential to guide Solutions.
The common assumption is that if you’re pro-life, you support as many barriers to abortion as possible. The more the merrier. You will, for instance, support waiting periods, mandated counseling, parental/spousal notification, and limitations on state or federal funding.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Is that really the case? Isn’t it possible to be pro-life but still oppose relaying not completely accurate information about the risk of breast cancer associated with abortion? Or to be pro-life and not support a long waiting period? And perhaps most importantly, does the mere fact that you’re pro-life tell us how far you’re willing to go? Does it mean you want abortion to be completely illegal in all cases? Or does it mean you’re for some barriers but not others?
Even with these caveats it would be unfair to deny that from your pro-life standpoint we can infer that you’ll support a fair amount of solutions. So let’s be generous and allocate 7 out of the 11 points assigned to solutions.
… tells us little about Circumstances. In fact, the nine variables listed under circumstances inevitably introduce nuance, which undermines binary thinking.
Take trimester, for example. We would expect that pro-life supporters are against abortion regardless of at what point in the pregnancy it occurs. I could not find data that would allow for a direct test of this claim, but Gallup’s results will serve as a decent proxy.
In the 2018 May 1–10 wave, 60% of polled Americans said abortion should be legal in the first trimester, while only 28% and 13% said it should be legal in the second and third trimesters, respectively. Since the distribution of pro-life/pro-choice is usually 50–50, this indicates that the majority of pro-choice believers are, in fact, against third-trimester abortions.
Additionally, there is a variable for which we have high-quality original data in the General Social Survey: the mother’s health. Due to the lack of a specific pro-choice/pro-life variable I will use another as a stand-in, ‘Abortion if the woman wants for any reason’ with 764 yes and 760 no answers.
If we were going in blind, we would assume that pro-lifers oppose and pro-choicers support abortion no matter what. Thus, we’d expect the following distribution (the numbers in Table 1 are slightly lower because of missing values on the woman’s health question):
In contrast, here is the real pattern.
I’m not sure what’s going on with the 8 people who think abortion should be legal in any circumstance but not when a woman’s health is seriously endangered.
Leaving them aside, we observe a very different story in the real data compared to our blind expectations. The vast majority (580 people, 80%) of pro-life proponents think abortion should be legal in this case, proving our predictions grossly wrong.
This pattern is largely the same for other variables like rape, incest, or poverty. You can be pro-life and still say that if the mother is very poor they should have the chance to abort. And you can be pro-choice and still say that third-semester abortions should only be possible in very exceptional or no circumstances.
In other words, knowing that you identify as pro-choice or pro-life tells us very little about how you view the issue when you take circumstances into account. To put a number on it, let’s say we can predict 3 out of the 9 variables to an acceptable degree.
… breaks down completely when it comes to abortion’s Impact on People. In Figure 2 we identified eight affected groups. Regardless of whether you identify as pro-life or pro-choice, you should consider the impact on all of them.
That is not what we observe in practice. Pro-lifers like President Trump (protector of the unborn) typically focus on the child. At the same time, those on the pro-choice side including Joe Biden (champion of women’s self-determination) are predominantly concerned with the mother. Most important, neither side seems to address the other impacted stakeholders.
Consequently, if I know you’re pro-life, I have an idea of where you stand with respect to the impact on the fetus but not much else. What do you think about abortion’s impact on the father or other family members? Are you always against everything Planned Parenthood does? In the absence of information, the maximum number of points we can predict is 1 out of 8.
… should have no bearing whatsoever on Knowledge. Think back to all the 16 pieces of information relevant to abortion covered in this article including questions like ‘Does abortion reduce crime?’ or ‘What risks to the child and mother are associated with the mother’s age?
Whether you identify your view as pro-choice or pro-life does, in reality, probably color your perception of such pieces knowledge. It does not, however, provide any information about what you actually know and what the source of your knowledge is. I can’t do better than 0 out of 16 points.
For the sake of completeness, let’s also review the three big-picture components of a fully saturated view (I’ve omitted the figure in which they’re represented, if you’re interested you can find it here).
(a simple view …)
… can reveal close to nothing about an Ideal. Most of us would likely agree that abortion should be used only as an absolute last resort, as infrequently, and as early in the pregnancy as possible. In addition, I’m fairly certain that the majority of us find adoption and contraception preferable alternatives. I fail to see any direct connection to whether we categorize ourselves as pro-choice or pro-life.
… says absolutely nothing about Priority. Abortion can be the most important policy issue to you in the world or one you haven’t given a single thought to. We can infer nothing from knowing that you’re pro-choice or pro-life.
… provides no information about your Process. If I know your simple stance, I still have no idea how you arrived at it, what biases you encountered, or whether you’ve changed your mind along the way.
Based on knowing whether someone is pro-life or pro-choice, we’re able to predict 7 + 3 + 1 = 11 out of the 70 total points that represent a fully saturated view on abortion. That’s 16%.
Moreover, and I’ve saved the strongest argument for last, this number is likely significantly overestimated. We’ve arrived at it by ticking off components one by one. But that’s not how this works in reality, where policy questions always relate to the COMBINATION of factors.
Would you have an underage rape victim watch an ultrasound of their unwanted child before they abort? Would you have the state fully pay for a third-trimester abortion for no reason other than the mother’s last-minute change of heart?
These and even more complex combinations are the ones policy and policy makers have to address to reflect what happens in the real world. And their total number is staggering. It rises to 12,672 if we consider just two of the seven main components, Circumstances (2⁷ for each binary variable * 3² for the two others) and Solutions (*11 to indicate whether each solution is supported in such cases).
Thus, our current 16% assessment is certainly overly optimistic.
To answer our core questions:
very little information is retained in a simple pro/con view; pro-choice legislation hardly exists; and one can be pro-life in thousands (mathematically) or at least dozens (realistically) of ways.
Pro-life/pro-choice is not good enough.
Where does it leave us and why is this important?
Scroll back to Figure 1. to see what this all means. The whole idea of democratic representation rests on the notion that we can control complex legislation with our simple pro-life/pro-choice views. We’ve just seen how that is virtually impossible.
Due to the discrepancy between the simplicity of most policy views and the complexity of real-life policy, democratic representation can only occur with very severe limitations.
So if you want politicians to execute people’s policy preferences, you’re out of luck. They can’t.
Where does this leave us?
At first glance, there appear to be two ways out of this conundrum. We either improve representation or do away with it.
- We can start improving representation by facilitating the acquisition of complex policy views by more and more people. This admirable undertaking could not only promote deep critical thinking but would likely help us keep politicians more accountable. While I think we should definitely pursue this goal, it will likely take a lot of time and effort with no guarantee for success. In the meantime, there’s a much simpler solution.
- If we can’t improve representation, why not give it up? There is more than one way to run a democracy. Instead of having politicians represent our views, why not simply put the the best people in positions of power to make the best decisions for all of us!
In my next article series I will investigate if this appealing notion is, in fact, possible.
I hope you enjoyed this one and will follow me there.