Do our Elected Officials really Represent Us?

Do our Elected Officials really Represent Us?

By Rafael Grossman-Naples ‘23

Dissatisfaction with life comes from many sources, each different for every person. But a common source of dissatisfaction, distrust, disagreement, and, at times, anger are our politicians; specifically, our elected officials. Why is it that there are such high levels of distrust and discontent with our federal government? A study performed by the Pew Research Center that analyzed that the general public’s trust of the federal government from 1958-2019 shows that trust in the federal government in the Obama/Trump era is at the lowest level it has been in recent history. Why is there such a low level of trust in the officials we elect? After all, aren’t our elected officials supposed to represent our interests? 

But what does it mean to represent our interests? This simple question has no easy answer. Malcolm Jewell, a former professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, sought to answer this question in a study in which he interviewed 220 members of the House of Representatives. From the perspective of these House members, being representative to one’s constituents means balancing partisanship, one’s district’s preferences, and doing what one thinks is best for the district. However, to use a less biased definition of representation, Jewell also borrows the work of political theorist Hanna Pitkin. 

Pitkin explains her definition of representation by addressing two conflicting views on representation, asking “Should (must) a representative do what his constituents want, and be bound by mandates or instruction from them; or should (must) he be free to act as seems best to him in pursuit of their welfare?” (Jewell, 11) She resolves this conflict by suggesting three general rules for representation to work for both the elected official and their constituents. “1) the representative must be able to act with independence; 2) he must act in the interests of constituents and normally in accord with their wishes; 3) if he acts contrary to their wishes, he must be able to explain why.” (Jewell, 11) While there are clear parallels between this list and Jewell’s House members’ ideas of representativeness, unfortunately, these frameworks do little in terms of actually explaining how good representation takes place. How can representatives act in the interests of all of their constituents when the interests of their district aren’t homogenous? How can and how should representatives balance ideological and partisan interests with the best interests of their constituents? And even more importantly, how do they balance these competing interests?

This question “how do elected officials actually balance these interests” is in part answered by Ezra Klein, founder of Vox, in a discussion of the book Insecure Majorities by prominent political scientist Frances Lee. Klein lists the priorities of elected officials in order; “Win election, win the majority, influence governance as much as possible.” One would think that in order to win the election, and especially a reelection, an elected official must cater to their constituents in order to maintain their vote, correct? And yet conversely, this idea of winning the election above all else actually has severe implications that helps explain why elected officials so often fail to satisfy their constituents. 

One of the key components to getting elected is gathering and maintaining a strong foundation of voters. However, this can force elected officials or even whole political parties to prioritize the interests of that one group over all else. For instance, in our government today we see the prevalence of Donald Trump’s various white, Christian, anti-government voter base on contentious topics such as abortion, racism, white supremacy, social services, and the military. Even if Trump wanted to appeal to progressives, he would be unable to pass any substantial policy to attract liberal voters without alienating his main voter base. Due to this, elected officials and even whole political parties generally cater to a highly ideologically homogeneous voter base, and when they reach out to voters outside that base, they start with those most ideologically similar.

However, according to Paul Frymer in Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America, in a two party system like the United States, there is a special case in which the elected officials of an entire political party are able to mostly ignore the interests of a large portion of their voter base while still receiving the benefit of their support. In this situation, a single-issue voting bloc remains “electorally captured” by one political party that doesn’t expend effort to retain their votes because the alternative party cannot cater to the electorally captured group’s interests whatsoever out of fear of alienating their constituents. A prominent example of this can be seen in the Democrats’ electoral capture of Black voters in the United States. Black voters overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, despite often not receiving the policy changes they are promised. Despite this, they aren’t able to defect to the Republican party due to the Republican’s white conservative voter base, which would fall apart given a platform championing civil rights. Given this idea of the electoral capture of Black Americans, it follows that elected officials would be less responsive to Black voters, and the theory holds. In a meta-analysis of studies examining the responsiveness of political elites, Mia Costa shows that Black constituents are over 5% less likely to receive a response from political elites, elected or not, than white voters. 

Whether due to partisan alignment, voting blocs, or electoral capture, elected officials have many reasons to put their own interest in getting elected ahead of the interests of their constituents. Increasingly in the past several decades lack of electoral responsiveness to demands from their constituents have reached higher levels of public awareness. Especially in the midst of a pandemic it becomes noticeable that the cries for healthcare and security fall upon deaf, unresponsive ears. In our increasingly polarized and chaotic political landscape, this begs the question, going forward, how can we ensure representation?

4 thoughts on “Do our Elected Officials really Represent Us?

  1. An insightful probing of different problems in representation. So do you agree with Pitkin that the right view of representation is that a representative should act as the delegate of their constituents, except when the rep thinks their constituents’ real interest is in something they don’t want? For example, in Clint Eastwood’s movie “Invictus,” President Nelson Mandela knows that “the people” want to abolish the Springbok as the symbol of South African rugby. But Mandela says “in this, the people are wrong.” He thinks the right way to build the new nation that he thinks his people want is to retain the Springbok symbol, so as not to alienate Afrikaners. So he makes decisions that support the Springbok symbol and Springbok rugby (although they also give both new meaning), which disappoints many of his followers. Here, Mandela sees himself as acting as a trustee for the people: he will do what he thinks is in their real interests, even though many of them think it isn’t. (He will also try to persuade the latter to change their minds.) Pitkin’s theory basically says that representation should take the delegate approach, except when the rep thinks acting as a trustee is in the constituents’ real interests, and offers reasons for going against what the constituents want.

    Suppose that US representatives actually sat down and explained to their constituents the pressures they’re under. That they need to get elected to make decisions, and that they’re sometimes more able to get things done if they have a single-issue voting bloc in their corner. It sounds like that’d be an improvement in representation according to Pitkin’s criterion. US reps would actually be giving reasons for why they’re going against what constituents wants. What would that do to our system of representation?

  2. Thanks for writing this! I think to your tangential why question – about why is there this level of dissatisfaction with representation – I think that can at least in part be due to the rise in availability of information. It’s perhaps not that election officials are truly representing constituents’ interests more or less (though they may be), but that constituents have more access to information about what their politicians are doing. Instead of only hearing from their politicians in radio addresses or the occasional town hall, constituents can now do a quick search to find a plethora of information about what they are doing. Also, this information is represented through a thoroughly sensationalized news media, where more dramatic headlines sell more.

  3. Rafi, as someone who is equally critical of the American electoral system, this struck some chords with me, especially your analysis of officials that simultaneously ignore the single-issue voters they can almost guarantee will vote for them, while also failing to appeal to a broader base of voters. Especially in the House of Representatives, it seems as though campaigning barely ends before it starts again, meaning elected officials must always be working towards getting re-elected and re-elected again, rather than representing the needs of their constituents. While many people feel disenfranchised by their officials, if an official’s base is the simple majority of the district they represent, then by appealing to that base, are they not representing the will of their constituents? How should officials balance the will of the majority versus policy the official might personally support, but that may offend a large portion of the district? Is it possible that lengthening the terms for Congresspeople would help to alleviate some of the campaign stressors? I am not sure how we should be going about accountability, but I definitely agree that the voices of many voters, particularly those of marginalized communities, are perpetually ignored, as they are deemed a “safe” voting bloc for specific parties. Great job and I look forward to seeing where your analysis takes you!

  4. Thanks for writing this great piece, Rafi! Questioning whether or not elected officials really represent us coincides pretty well with what I’ve been researching this semester regarding the Electoral College. It seems as though the Electoral College is the catalyst institution for electing officials that don’t necessarily represent what American voters want. The 2016 election is a perfect example of this, when Donald Trump won the Electoral vote but lost the popular vote. I think that perhaps institutions such as the Electoral College make room for politicians to be elected as officials, almost in a “loophole” manner, where they’re bypassing what the American people want. This, along with easy access to information online, creates dissatisfaction with our elected officials from the general American public. Looking forward to seeing where your research takes you!

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