Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Difference Between "Representative" and "Representation"

Do any of these sound familiar?
- "The people I represent..."
- "Those are the people you voted for..."
- "A government of the people, by the people, for the people..."

All these are related, as well as many other quotations, to the idea of a representative government system, where the people have "proxy" agents which represent, typically, large groups of individual people. Those agents, colloquially "representatives", then make decisions which govern the lives of the people they nominally represent. The idea being that such a system has a few benefits: a smaller group of people negotiating on policy, the ability to have more informed policy makers, the ability to more quickly make decisions, etc. I'm not going to talk about how well those theories match the reality; that's another discussion.

Rather, I'm going to address a per-peeve which has been bothering me recently: the difference between having a representative and having representation. People often confuse the two, intentionally and otherwise. The language is similar, probably because both words derive from the same general concept: having someone who represents your views (and possibly those of many others) in another capacity (organization, government, etc.). However, particularly with respect to the current state of US politics, they can mean very different things.

In general, a representative is just someone who claims to be a proxy for others. For example, a manager might be a representative for his subordinate employees during an organization's management meetings. A religious leader might claim to represent the group of followers which attend his services. A terrorist might claim to represent all the people of a religion, just as a government official might claim to represent anyone in his/her area. The idea is the same, regardless of how the person came to be in the position, and regardless of the feelings of the people nominally being represented.

On the other hand, representation is the idea that someone actually represents the views, opinions, or other aspects of the people being represented, regardless of official capacity. For example, most politicians give representation to their largest campaign donors, in thinly-disguised or overt quid-pro-quo arrangements. The suicide bomber might give representation to the murderous zealots directing his actions. Edward Snowden is giving representation to those who still think the government should respect the Constitution, and not just ignore it. The representation isn't necessarily associated with an official position; it just means you are representing the views of others, as a proxy to their voice(s).

This brings me back to the importance of the distinction, especially with respect to politics in the US. I have representatives in the US government, at various levels: various people claim to speak for me, and/or to derive additional weight for their opinions based on the magnitude of the people they "represent". However, they no more offer me representation than, say, charged criminals in exile, who have given up their lives in pursuit of the conceptual principles of the US. Indeed, the US representatives have done far more harm to me (my freedoms, liberty, rights, etc.) than anyone they claim to be "protecting" me from.

So, while I do have representatives in government, I just as certainly do not have representation in government, for my ideas, views, principles, opinions, or anything else. And when we're talking politics in a Representative Democracy, it's very important not to confuse the two, or be convinced that having one implies having the other, which is most certainly (and in practice, very often) does not.