Our Unrepresentative RepublicRoundup
tags: Constitution, democracy, representation
Mark Boonshoft is an assistant professor of history at Duquesne University.
The United States has an unrepresentative government. Worse, it is unrepresentative in ways that, 250 years ago, led to the American Revolution.
We’ve all heard the phrase “no taxation without representation.” Colonists conjured this in opposition to the Stamp Act, in October of 1765. This objection sounds intuitively true and righteous; we know there were no colonial members of Parliament, and that seems to be an offense against basic fairness.
Yet the British did not concede the point. Rather, they claimed that the American colonists were “virtually” represented in Parliament, same as all Britons. “Virtual representation” was the idea that every member of Parliament represented every British person. A member of Parliament might come from a district, but he served everyone, including the colonists.
This idea did not develop in response to colonial protests. It emerged to placate angry men within England. Parliamentary districts dated to the Middle Ages. By the 18th century, many of them had tiny populations, yet still got to elect an MP. These were called rotten boroughs. Meanwhile, growing industrial cities like Manchester elected no MPs because they were small back when districts were drawn. Thomas Paine famously criticized all of this in 1791 in “The Rights of Man.”
American colonists especially disliked rotten boroughs and virtual representation. They had a different experience of representation locally. Until Parliament started to intervene in the 1760s, most governing in America happened in colonial assemblies. Colonists were “actually represented” in these legislatures. Propertied white men elected representatives from their communities to serve their interests.
To be sure, the electorate was still limited. Women, enslaved people and many working-class white men lacked the franchise. But Americans valued actual representation, and their defense of it helped spur the American Revolution.
Current debates between Democrats and Republicans over the structures of our representative institutions mirror this revolutionary conflict. Democrats have increasingly attacked how the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate, and the static size of the House of Representatives have created similar distortions in the United States. That’s why a president who received 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, and a Republican majority Senate that collectively received almost 20 million fewer votes than their opponents, can block needed economic stimulus and push through another Supreme Court justice. This is all unpopular.
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