The Democracy Gospel: Representation

This essay continues the series of political essays. The previous essay focused on power. Here I want to address the topic representation. If you remember the line “No taxation without representation!” then you might understand fully how important representation is. The English king certainly knew it and had to learn a tough lesson. Now in the case of the American Revolution which started as a tax dispute, England was a kingdom with a territory and colonies. In a democratic system of government things are a bit different.

A democratic form of government promises power to “the people”. Those privileged to vote are then have the power and are able to elect a representative of choice. The process of giving people privileges, empowering them and making them able to elect a representative for government or parliament is more complex than it appears to be.

The process from being privileged to vote to electing a representative starts with recognition. When a person meets the criteria set by the government, he or she is given the right to vote. Usually citizenship and a minimum age suffice. Then there is the election system. In some countries districts choose representatives, in some countries national populations choose representatives and sometimes these approaches can be mixed up.

Now historically “democracy” is just the name, derived from the Greek word as it became popular. The Greek and most notably Athenian civilisation have often been used as a prime example. Thing is, often when people were forced to unify against something they applied democratic practices because it made the most sense. If the populations in European cities after 1200 did not unite, feudal lords would have stayed in power for much longer. In the Netherlands inhabitants, nobles and peasants alike united to protect the land against water, hence the Dutch “waterschappen” exist.

The principle behind electing a representative is that the voters have someone who speaks for them. The relationship between the voting person(s) and the representative is complex. The representative is expected to be loyal to the voters, colleagues and the system in which the representative has to operate without having a conflict of interest. That seems impossible and difficult. In politics though many seemingly simple situations are quite complex.

For instance look at the Netherlands. The Netherlands are a kingdom with a monarch who has symbolic power in general; a prime minister who is chosen by the coalition of representatives and the parliament is chosen by the Dutch voters. There are two parliaments, one to discuss and draft proposals and laws and one to control, amend, approve or reject proposed laws. At the same time one minister can propose and issue a law, have it checked and a law passed undemocratically. There are systems, with sub-systems, rules and exceptions to the rules.

Often political processes combined with who represents who and who does what in a the governmental decision-making-process consist of many small steps. In many countries there are unique systems with sub-systems, rules and exceptions to the rules based on history, political culture and old traditions. In the Netherlands for example there was a sub-level of representatives called the “Staten-Generaal” who represented the united provinces and used to rule the Netherlands by majority vote in absence of a monarch. The first Dutch king only came to power after Napoleon was completely defeated at Waterloo. Before Napoleon the Netherlands were a state consisting of unified provinces with Holland as the mightiest province. The “Staten-Generaal” are now the “Eerste Kamer” thus senate and the “Tweede Kamer” thus house of representatives in the national decision-making-process. In some countries the “Staten-Generaal” were called the national assembly or convention.

An important aspect of democratic systems of government and representation is the process by which the head of state is chosen. For a purely democratic republic the head of state is ideally chosen by the voters, directly. In some countries there are exceptions to that ideal. In the old European monarchies like the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom the monarchs still have their position and symbolic power. There a prime minister acts as the president of the cabinet (of ministers) and parliament is democratically elected. In some cases the prime minister is directly elected by the voters and thus is the president of “the people”.

In an ideal democratic system of government the voters decides who represents them in parliament and as head of state. The United States come close to that ideal until you look at the election campaigns and who financially supports who. Again the picture looks pretty and then you see details that contrast the overall prettiness.

In the approach to this essay I really had to re-think everything I thought I knew. Yes I live in the very democratic yet undemocratic Netherlands with its monarch. I sometimes think my vote does not add much and yet I still think it adds something. Of course a minimum majority elects the representative, the individual is just an individual. In a time where often politicians promote “democracy this!”, “democracy that!” and “support me/us because democracy!” I tend to miss their explanation of who they represent and why.

In the Western world, notably Western-Europe and the United States there is so much emphasis on democratic systems of government. I do not mind the propaganda. I want to know who represents who, why and how the democracy represents “the people”. I mind propaganda without explanation and as a sceptic, who represents me?

Think about it. Who represents you? Why? Is everything explained and in the open?


For this essays I linked to Wikipedia entries here and there. In general Wikipedia is an excellent source for quick fact checking, especially with a second source to compare relevancy, recency and completeness. In this essay I omitted some details to stick to my posting schedule.

If the topic of democratic systems of governments interests you, check out more sources and make up your own mind. One big advantage of the information age is that it is possible to “educate yourself” when you want to learn more. Just know that acquiring knowledge requires a choice and an effort.