A Democratic Concept of Representation: An Analysis of the Ideal Concept of Representation in Democratic Institutions

Essay by Samuel Marks
Photo: Staff, Happy Medium

Representation, at its core, is defined as “a making present again” or “the making present in some sense of something which is nevertheless not present literally or in fact” (Pitkin 1967). However, in a democratic sense, representation goes beyond the simplistically unrefined definition above. Seminal political scientist Hanna Pitkin’s analysis and conclusions are arguably the most cogent in encapsulating the democratic concept of representation, with additional qualifiers. Therefore, the most defensible concept of democratic representation is representing as a means of acting in the interest of the represented, in a manner responsive to them, where the representative acts independently (using discretion and judgment), but should not be in constant conflict with the represented and have explanations for the necessary times they occur. Furthermore, there should be the formalistic aspects of authorization and accountability through elections, as well as the possibility for descriptive representation, but only on the grounds that substantive representation is the most prominent feature (Pitkin 1967).

Before defending the aforementioned argument, the more rational solution is to illustrate the failures of other definitions. The first definition of representation, both historically and as Pitkin presents it, is the Hobbesian formalistic concept of representation, centered on authorization (Pitkin 1967). In philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ definition, there are two groups of people in society: natural people whose words and actions are their own, and artificial/feigned people whose words and actions are those of someone else. This creates a paradigm in which natural people become represented and an artificial person(s) becomes the representative, or to Hobbes’ concept, the Levithan (Pitkin 1967). The representative has been granted all the rights, through transfer or renouncement, of the represented, who authorized the representative into their position of power. However, the represented bear all the burden and responsibility for the actions of the representative, as they are the true owner of the representative’s actions. Therefore, the representative could do whatever they pleased, even levying a 100% tax, and for the represented to interfere would be unjust. Once the power and rights have been transferred to a representative, all decisions made by the representative are binding; there is no recourse for the represented if they dislike what the representative is doing (Pitkin 1967). This is the main issue with Hobbes’ idea of representation, also known as the formalistic authorization view. The only focus of this view of representation is the ceding of authority to act; there are no standards or expectations to which the representative must conform. It lacks any responsiveness to the represented. In fact, they are not truly being represented, as the “representative” can do as they please, even if such an action is in direct conflict with the interests of the represented (Pitkin 1967). This concept would allow figures such as kings and dictators to be titled as “representatives,” regardless of how they actually represent the people, if at all. This is what renowned political scientist Nadia Urbanati called “indirect despotism,” as the people are not actually being represented in a manner that is acceptable, let alone to democratic standards of representation (Urbaniti 2006).

Even if one traverses to the opposite side of the formalistic spectrum to accountability views, it is equally lacking. Although accountability to the governed is critical in defining democratic representation, as is authorization, only acknowledging the beginning and end of a representative’s period while serving, neglects their responsibilities while in office. This concept is equally flawed, as it is really just the inverse of the authorization view. The focus is too heavily reliant on the initiation (in both cases) and termination (only in accountability views) of authority, not what the actual representative does (Pitkin 1967). Both of these elements are important to a democratic concept of representation, but alone, without the substantive “acting for” base of representation, they are horribly faulty.

The next version or concept of representation Pitkin addresses is descriptive representation, which focuses on a representative’s characteristics and the correspondence/connection between the representative and represented (Pitkin 1967). This version of representation is where Pitkin and the definition presented in the introduction differ. This is because she holds the practice of descriptive representation in very low regard, in all cases. However, in reality, it can enhance democratic representation, with some qualifications. Pitkin does present some legitimate criticism of descriptive representation in her assessment. The first of which is the notion that people tend to prefer an “ideal-type” of representative, rather than someone that looks or acts like them. This makes rational sense, as representatives tend to be better educated, from a higher socioeconomic class, and overall better looking than those they represent. Furthermore, representatives’ characteristics do not necessarily have any indication of their preferences or how they will act once elected (Pitkin 1967). Pitkin’s criticism of the version of descriptive representation presented is fair, largely because she only addresses microcosmic descriptive representation, which seeks to perfectly mirror society to the legislature. In this system, a pure lottery would serve as a better means of selecting representatives than elections. Furthermore, such a plan would not be feasible to introduce realistically, but also produce worse representation as a whole (Mansbridge 1999; Pitkin 1967). 

The kind of descriptive representation that Pitkin ignored or overlooked is where a better concept can be presented. The superior version is known as selective descriptive representation. This concept allows for institutional designs to be created that give select groups better representation in proportion to their descriptions, in cases where there are factors unnaturally reducing the proportion of certain groups (Mandbridge 1999). However, I still draw criticisms of this version of descriptive representation. This is because the greatest cost in this practice is fomenting essentialism, which is “the assumption that members of a certain group have an essential identity that all members of the group have and which none other can partake” (Mandbridge 1999; Phillips 2020). Such practice fails to recognize legitimate cleavages among groups that would be treated as monoliths in this system. This would inherently marginalize some of the population within certain groups that are overall meant to be uplifted. Furthermore, it encourages citizens to self-divide, hampering cross-cutting cleavages, political parties, political unity, and compromise (Mandbridge 1999; Phillips 2020).

However, even with all the criticism presented against descriptive representation, there is still a critical role it can play in democratic concepts of representation. The key mechanism is that it can serve to enhance the deliberative functions of a legislative body, on the grounds that substantive representation comes first and forms the base of representation. The opprobrium presented against descriptive representation is not in the practice itself, but the practice acting alone, without the substantive base. Political scientist Katherine Tate masterfully presents a case whereby, if the substantive representation is primarily accounted for, then descriptive representation can act as a positive addendum to the deliberate purpose of the legislature (Tate 2003).

Symbolic representation is the most complex of the ideas presented, but the easiest to dismiss. Symbolic representation lacks a cogent definition but is roughly viewed as representation as a form of symbolization so that political representatives are to be understood on the model of a flag representing a nation (Pitkin 1967). It either exists or it does not; if someone believes it does, then it does, if not, then it does not. The concept rests on emotional/irrational psychological responses, rather than on rationally justifiable criteria. This means that keeping the represented content is the only thing that matters (Pitkin 1967). This is inherently problematic, as it really does not matter what substantive representation representatives provide, so long as the people are content. Therefore, the need for elections becomes irrelevant, as parades, propaganda, and coercion would function more successfully. Furthermore, kings and dictators would be “better” representatives than elected officials, since being a representative has nothing to do with the accurate reflections of the popular will or enacting good laws; as long as enough people are content, the representative could do whatever they pleased (Pitkin 1967).

Now that the competing definitions of the democratic concept of representation have been successfully analyzed and relatively discredited, the defense of substantive (“acting for”) representation must be presented. The key role of a good democratic representative is the substance of what they do, for the represented, while in office. The promotion of the represented’s interests, and ensuring they are met, is crucial to the raw definition of representation by “making present in some sense of something which is nevertheless not present literally or in fact” (Pitkin 1967). It defines the actions of the representative, not just their initiation and termination, what they look like, or what they stand for; it is about the responsiveness of the representative. Within this concept, however, there are distinctions to be made. Some believe that representatives should act solely as delegates, acting on explicit instruction. Others believe that they should be trustees and act in the interests of represented, with some discretion. The latter is preferable in normative terms of democratic concepts of representation. This is because, as philosopher Edmund Burke noted, a representative’s goal is to act in the interests of the represented, not their desires and wishes, which are fickle and ever-changing (Pitkin 1967). Furthermore, representatives are seasoned political operatives and have spent long periods of time honing their judgment, virtue, and wisdom, through experience, to provide the best for the represented. If a representative simply followed the orders of represented, the quality of representation would not only be lower, but it would cease to be representation, as they devolve to becoming a mere surrogate of ideas (Pitkin 1967). However, this does not rationalize a case whereby the representative is at constant odds with the represented. Such a case would indicate that the representative’s independence to act in the interests of the represented has swayed too far. Despite this, there are times where the true interests of the represented, and what they vocally desire, do not align. This is why the representative should be granted some autonomy, yet have a rational explanation and good reasoning for why the wishes of the represented and their interests might be misaligned (Pitkin 1967).

In conclusion, the initial definition and concept of democratic representation has been illustrated as superior. By comparing the definition against others that fail, and then defending and rationalizing the proposed concept, the veracity of the claims bolstered its legitimacy. In the end, a relatively independent, substantive representation, with the additional features of the formalistic authorization and accountability, with the possibility for descriptive representation, is the best means of democratic representation.

Samuel Marks is a junior political science major from Poughkeepsie, NY. He is planning to get his Master’s in Public Administration and a Juris Doctor degree. Sam has previously written on politics in the past and has had papers published. He likes to run, watch the Mets and Jets, and anime. Sam also has a unique upbringing, as he grew up in Asia for 13 years, which gives him a unique insight into the global political sphere.


Mansbridge, Jane. 1999. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A contingent ‘Yes.’” Journal of Politics 61(3): 628-57.

Phillips, Anne. 2020. “Descriptive Representation Revisited.” The Oxford Handbook of Representation in Liberal Democracies, August. 

Pitkin, Hanna. 1967. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Tate, Katherine. 2004. Chapters 1-3. In Black Faces in the Mirror: African Americans and Their Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Urbinati, Nadia. 2006. Introduction and Chapter 1. Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.