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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsWho represents me in politics? Or who do I represent when I'm involved in politics? If you ask yourself these questions, it's not easy to find a clear answer. In most cases, it is parliament that represents the people politically. At the individual level, you might think of the person you voted for in elections, whether local, national, or supranational. But maybe you did not vote, or you do not feel represented in politics. Maybe you feel represented or misrepresented in many different ways at many different levels, and by many different people. Such reflections touch on the nature of political representation. To start with, we should first isolate political representation from democracy.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 secondsToday, representative democracy is a common denominator within the majority of political systems in the world. However, political representation at most has not always been the self evident partner of democracy. Politics in the age of sovereign monarchs had representative features too. In absence of the monarch, political matters were taken up by the clergy, knights, or personal advisors who were assigned to represent the monarch at a particular instance. The monarch's wish, demand, or opinion was made present again. And here we have arrived at a minimum definition of political representation that the political theorist Hanna Pitkin presented to us in the early 1960s. To represent is to make present again. But what exactly should be made present again? And by whom? And where?

Skip to 1 minute and 54 secondsWell, put in the most general terms, political representation entails at least one, a party that represents. In modern democracy this entails to our elected officials. Two, a party that is represented, in most cases the people. Three, an object of representation, such as the general will or a particular interest. Four, a context in which the activity of political representation takes place, parliament for instance. A key debate in modern political representation theory has been how to assess the relationship between the elected and the people. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, James Madison, wrote by the end of the 18th century that governmental bodies should be the most exact transcript of the whole society.

Skip to 2 minutes and 50 secondsThe representative of the people should be a delegate of the people. And the elected assembly should consequently resemble society. As such, the space between the electorate and the elected is as small as possible. The elected have the obligation to consult the electorate. They stand for the people. In contrast, the famous philosopher Edmund Burke posited a different conception of political representation in the 18th century too. Being struck by the shifts in power after the French and American revolutions, Burke spoke in favour of what he called virtual representation. It was better to have a trustee as a representative of the people. This trustee did neither resemble the electorate nor should he-- women were not considered yet-- consult them before acting politically.

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 secondsInstead, the trustee would virtually represent the people, giving him leeway to act according to his own convictions, beliefs, and virtues. Due to the distance between those represented and the representative, the representative was able to act freely and independently. He, or later also she, acts for the people. In addition to these forms of representation, recently theorists have put forward another way of conceding political representation, the idea that political representation revolves around processes of claim making. And I will give you an example of this to illustrate this take on political representation. We all agree that animals cannot express their wish to be represented in politics.

Skip to 4 minutes and 36 secondsHowever, various groups and individuals, whether in parliament or present in the public sphere, claim to represent the interests of animals. As such, they discursively construct themselves as the representative of animals, their political advocates, without establishing a formal relationship with the animals. There is no delegation. There is no trusteeship. And there is no electoral approval. This example discloses the highly complex context of political representation today. It stretches beyond the formal boundaries and institutions of electoral politics. And it's not restricted anymore to territorial or national confines.

Roots of representative democracy

In this video, Dr Stefan Couperus defines the main elements of political representation and discusses their origins.

Who represents me in politics? Or who do I represent when I’m involved in politics?

If you ask yourself these questions, it is not easy to find a clear answer. In most cases, it is parliament that represents the people politically. At the individual level you might think of the person you voted for in elections, whether local, national or supranational. But maybe you did not vote, or you do not feel represented in politics.

In this video, Dr Couperus explains core principles of political representation in a modern democracy and their origins. He also explains how these principles are being challenged in theory and practice. Europe, where the territorial and national borders of politics are significantly challenged, presents a good case in point.

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This video is from the free online course:

European Culture and Politics

University of Groningen

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