The Representative System
Does representation in today's world really work as a “system”? I argue that representation does indeed work this way. Political representation also works at the systemic level in a way that differs from the individual level of each actor.
A system of representation is the concept we turn to mainly to describe the aggregation of forms of representation that interact in a specific political context. To use the term “system of representation” is to describe the complex phenomenon in which political representation is fragmented into multiple interacting organizations, actors, and models.
Normative work on representation, however, has been mainly reductionist. The reductionist approach sees each site of representation individually and studies its internal dynamics. Normatively speaking, it evaluates representation with criteria found within the representative relationship, such as authorization, mandate, accountability, and acceptance by an audience. Empirically, it measures the quality of representation on this individual basis in accordance with internal standards. Saward proposes that we move the focus from fixed representative relationships to representative claims. But he centers mainly on the internal structure of representative claims, ignoring the systemic level at which these claims interact.
Half a century ago, Pitkin suggested a distinct approach that I will refer to as the systemic approach to representation: a complementary perspective that has been displaced all these years, with very few exceptions, by the reductionist view. The systemic approach, rather than concentrating on a single site of representation, focuses on the interactions between different sites. Instead of viewing representation from within a particular representational relationship, it sees it as the result of multiple adjustments between different actors and forms of representation.
How can the systemic approach improve our normative assessment of representation? I propose three different fronts.
First, we may evaluate each representative actor with systemic criteria. The systemic approach would add normative criteria, in addition to the relational criteria we are used to relying on (e.g. authorization, mandate, responsiveness, congruence, communication, and accountability), in order to judge existing and potential actors (e.g. the role played by the 15-M movement in the Spanish system of representation). Second, with a systemic approach, we can study the wide variety of possible connections between the parts of the system. With a systemic approach, we can introduce compensatory complementarities among the parts of the system, find links between different types that may reinforce a positive or negative aspect in the system, or suggest transactions between different actors and institutions. Third, we can study and evaluate systems of representation. Normatively speaking, we can also consider the criteria to be met by the representative system as a whole. We would not have to hope that a single institution scores high in all these systemic functions; it is the representative system as a whole that must score high. Indeed, we have a variety of representative actors among whom the work may be distributed in order to reach these goals together as a single system.