Types of Representation: Looking Out for Constituents
By definition and title, senators and House members are representatives. This means they are intended to be drawn from local populations around the country so they can speak for and make decisions for those local populations, their constituents, while serving in their respective legislative houses. That is, representation refers to an elected leader’s looking out for his or her constituents while carrying out the duties of the office.
Theoretically, the process of constituents voting regularly and reaching out to their representatives helps these congresspersons better represent them. It is considered a given by some in representative democracies that representatives will seldom ignore the wishes of constituents, especially on salient issues that directly affect the district or state. In reality, the job of representing in Congress is often quite complicated, and elected leaders do not always know where their constituents stand. Nor do constituents always agree on everything. Navigating their sometimes contradictory demands and balancing them with the demands of the party, powerful interest groups, ideological concerns, the legislative body, their own personal beliefs, and the country as a whole can be a complicated and frustrating process for representatives.
Traditionally, representatives have seen their role as that of a delegate, a trustee, or someone attempting to balance the two. A representative who sees him- or herself as a delegate believes he or she is empowered merely to enact the wishes of constituents. Delegates must employ some means to identify the views of their constituents and then vote accordingly. They are not permitted the liberty of employing their own reason and judgment while acting as representatives in Congress. This is the delegate model of representation.
In contrast, a representative who understands their role to be that of a trustee believes he or she is entrusted by the constituents with the power to use good judgment to make decisions on the constituents’ behalf. In the words of the eighteenth-century British philosopher Edmund Burke, who championed the trustee model of representation, “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests . . . [it is rather] a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.” In the modern setting, trustee representatives will look to party consensus, party leadership, powerful interests, the member’s own personal views, and national trends to better identify the voting choices they should make.
Understandably, few if any representatives adhere strictly to one model or the other. Instead, most find themselves attempting to balance the important principles embedded in each. Political scientists call this the politico model of representation. In it, members of Congress act as either trustee or delegate based on rational political calculations about who is best served, the constituency or the nation.
For example, every representative, regardless of party or conservative versus liberal leanings, must remain firm in support of some ideologies and resistant to others. On the political right, an issue that demands support might be gun rights; on the left, it might be a woman’s right to an abortion. For votes related to such issues, representatives will likely pursue a delegate approach. For other issues, especially complex questions the public at large has little patience for, such as subtle economic reforms, representatives will tend to follow a trustee approach. This is not to say their decisions on these issues run contrary to public opinion. Rather, it merely means they are not acutely aware of or cannot adequately measure the extent to which their constituents support or reject the proposals at hand. It could also mean that the issue is not salient to their constituents. Congress works on hundreds of different issues each year, and constituents are likely not aware of the particulars of most of them.