Canadians and Americans alike are blessed to live in representative democracies. Every two to four years we elect people to represent us – to govern on our behalf – in our legislative bodies. But what exactly is representation? Political scientists generally have two answers to this question.
First, a representative may act as a trustee of the public interest. A trustee does not vote on instruction from those she is called to represent. Rather she employs her own good judgement and does what she believes to be in the best interest of the public she serves. In a country divided into electoral districts or ridings, the member of legislature looks out, not just for those in her district, but for the entire political community.
Of course, this may not always be popular with those who elected her. The 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke discovered this while attempting to gain re-election in Bristol, the riding he represented in the British House of Commons. In a meeting with the Bristol electors in 1774, he articulated his position as follows:
His unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. . . . Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
For all Burke’s undoubted eloquence, he failed to persuade the people who had just put him in office and was defeated the next time around.
Second, a representative may be considered merely an agent or delegate of the voters. During a candidates’ debate at Redeemer University College in late 1988, a member of the audience asked the prospective office-holders how they would vote if an abortion bill came before them and a free vote were allowed in the Commons. Most avoided taking a stance on such a divisive issue by stating that they would poll their constituents and vote accordingly.
This was the approach of the old Reform Party under the leadership of Preston Manning, who favoured free votes in parliament, thereby enabling MPs more easily to channel their constituents’ wishes into public policy. South of the border Ross Perot supported this agent or delegate approach during his third-party presidential campaigns in 1992 and ’96. The use of referenda goes even further and removes the middle man, which is what the agent or delegate amounts to, thus permitting citizens to vote directly on the issues of the day. If we were to follow this approach, our own political systems would approximate the direct democracy of Athens or the New England town meetings.
Kuyper treated representation in Ons Program, published in 1879 as the programme of the newly established Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands. The delegate conception he titled the “imperative mandate,” in which a member of the States General acts “in keeping with what the voters have ordered and mandated him.” By contrast, the “trusted man” governs “without any tie to the voters” and keeps the electorate in a permanent state of immaturity, much as a lord relates paternalistically to the serfs on a feudal estate.
Kuyper believes that neither of these is adequate for understanding the task of representation. Better, he argues, that a member of parliament be a “bearer of a principle” with a “moral bond” to the electorate. True, the people may lack the political expertise of their leaders, but they do possess a certain political instinct which the leaders are bound to respect. They may not know the ins and outs of specific policy prescriptions, but they have a general understanding of the principles which ought to guide the making of such policies.
During an election candidates for public office are obligated to inform voters of their support for these principles, thereby enabling them to vote intelligently. It is not enough for a party to raise up “trusted men” and ask the people to follow them blindly based on this trust alone. Even trustees are in the grip of a worldview which the people deserve to know in advance.
“Trust us” is insufficient as a campaign promise, particularly if we have no assurance that the party seeking our support understands the principles of limited and just governance in the context of a pluriform society. Yet neither do we want our representatives to abdicate leadership and simply do our bidding. Instead we need our political parties to inform us honestly of their guiding principles, to stop telling us what they think we want to hear, and to govern in accordance with these principles. Anything less than that is unworthy of representation in a democratic polity. Kuyper understood this, and so should we.
David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. Ons Program has been translated into English as Our Program and is available as the first volume of a series of Kuyper's Collected Works in Public Theology. This post is an adaptation of a column in Christian Courier.