Representation and contestation in modern democracies. How important are protests?

, by Aurelian-Dragoș Mohan

Representation and contestation in modern democracies. How important are protests?
Anti-populist, pro-EU protests held across Europe on the 12th of March
Photo source: EURACTIV

The status-quo of international politics is largely influenced by the recent resurgence of political extremism and populism (exempli gratia, the 2014 electoral success of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front from France; the 2017 electoral success of the right-wing populist and Eurosceptic party entitled AfD from Germany; the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.A. and the subsequent bellicose rhetoric of the incumbent president; the 2018 general elections in Hungary and the victory of the Fidesz–KDNP alliance are only some of the major events that caught the attention of experts).

Narratives and Representatives

Political debates, private agendas of decision makers, public policy approaches and voter-representative relations evolve in conjunction with the current alterations of the political milieu. In other words, the main political actors adopt and impose upon the civil society well-defined narratives, opinions and topics of debate that correspond with their actual interests; in concreto, political parties, in order to get to power, they need „to advocate, symbolize and act on the behalf of others” (Source 1).

Politicians and political parties represent – advocate on behalf of – different groups of people. For this sole purpose, every political organization accepts and disseminates ideas that resonate with large sections of the populace. Regarding this process we identify a significant difference between the two main categories of political actors described by Otto Kirchheimer: (1) the loyal opposition – composed of the actors that disagree with the incumbent parties (or party) over policy approaches, but, nevertheless, accept the actual constitutional order, and (2) opposition of principle – composed of actors that reject the main legal provisions laid down in the constitution (Source 2).

An exponent of the first category (the loyal opposition) will have the propensity to propagate ideological viewpoints that do not harm the existing political structures and institutions per se; consequently, we can argue that he will utilize his primary resources on solving the real issues constituents have.

On the contrary, an exponent of an anti-system party (as Giovanni Sartori calls them – Source 3) will focus mainly on altering the constitutional system and, implicitly, erode the legal basis of democracy. In the latter case, discourses appeal to a larger, nebulous audience and encompass anti-immigrant, antielitist, antidemocratic, or anti-EU elements.

Moreover, anti-system rhetoric is mainly based on identity politics and on the endeavor of finding common enemies (exempli gratia, George Soros in the case of the Fidesz–KDNP alliance – Source 4); these specific narratives require – from the viewpoint of the anti-system political actors – the coalescing of individuals behind a charismatic political figure (`the great savior`) that can safeguard the national identity, culture and traditions. Such proclivities will undoubtedly generate misapprehensions regarding essential democratic values, principles, and processes. The list is not exhaustive; other multiple variations can emerge.

In the aforementioned context, civil society needs clear conceptual delineations that, in many instances, are not provided by political scientists. This article will assess the major interpretations of the concept of representation and will engage in a thorough explanation of the presence of democratic jargon in populist declamations.

Before analyzing how basic democratic mechanisms or principles are used against democracy itself, we need to describe one of the most important concepts in the field of political science: `representation`. It is of paramount importance to understand that (1) different types of political representation promote different standards for evaluating representatives, and (2) every definition of representation will invariably leave something out (some opinions, voices and ideas will not be represented).

Delegates and Trustees

A general theory of representation was devised by Andrew Rehfeld which states that this phenomenon can be reduced to a `relevant audience accepting a person as its representative` (Source 1). Although this description has a high level of accuracy, it also enables multiple cases of undemocratic representation. For the purpose of avoiding `conceptual stretching` (Source 5), we will ignore Rehfeld’s point of view and will focus on the classic dichotomy between delegate and trustee types of representation.

On the one hand, delegate representatives are those that should closely follow all the expressed preferences of their constituents. On the other hand, trustee representatives follow their own particular interpretation of the best public policy that should be implemented. In other words, the delegate-trustee debate is about two opposing views regarding how an elected representative must react to the represented’s interests: with respect or with indifference.

From our perspective, neither the delegate nor the trustee type of representation can solve one basic tension between the represented and its representative – which of them should have autonomy of decision? In extenso, we prefer the approach Hana F. Pitkin has on the subject: political scientist should preserve this delegate-trustee paradox because citizens would be better off safeguarding `the autonomy of both the representative and of those being represented` (Source 1).

Pitkin argues that the ideal interpretation of representation should lead to a framework in which representatives are evaluated `on the basis of the reasons they give for disobeying the (expressed) preferences of their constituents` (Source 1). Moreover, general standards of representative evaluation cannot be created due to different public policy issues and dissimilar political environments.

In addition, one major step in preventing the electoral success of anti-system parties has to do with the civil society’s ability to clarify which view of representation is invoked in the process of representative assessment. When one country is in social and economic turmoil, elected representatives must be rewarded or punished according to the prevailing view of representation (exempli gratia, to lose or keep their mandates in the following electoral competition); if there is a disagreement on what criteria should be used to do that and a widespread lack of accountability, anti-system political actors capitalize on this status-quo by promoting radical ideas of change.

Jane Mansbridge argues that our current normative understanding of representation fails to reflect the recent changes in democratic practices (David Plotke has a similar view, Source 1) and in empirical research. In this context, she establishes four forms of representation in modern democracies that are relevant for our current analysis. (1) The promissory type of representation is focused upon the different ways constituents legitimize the authority of their representatives. Basically, the representatives are judged according to the promises made to the constituents during electoral campaigns. (2)

The anticipatory representation is all about strategic thinking: representatives are concerned with what constituents will reward in the next election and not with what they promised in the campaign or not with current public policy issues (not if they are of low significance or not under public scrutiny). (3) The gyroscopic representation describes the situation in which elected representatives derive from their own experience specific approaches to local or national public policy issues. (4) Surrogate representation concerns the particular cases when a `legislator represents constituents outside of his districts` (Source 1).

The aforementioned theoretical clarifications deliver a broad understanding of the main viewpoints of representation. This knowledge is valuable due to the fact that it offers civil society the appropriate conceptual instruments for recognizing anti-system parties and anticipatory representation. Furthermore, only if individuals agree what type of representation suits them best, they can punish and reward their local and national representatives in a manner which disposes of the agents that seek to undermine democracy.

Protests, constestation and democracy

In societies where a large part of the population has little or no information about representation or political systems in general, all democratic mechanisms are under constant threat. Id est, the lack of political knowledge fosters the presence of democratic jargon in populist declamations and the tampering with the constitutional framework that protects democracy.

For instance, in countries such as Hungary or Romania (Source 6 and Source 7) political elites consider protests and rallies as manifestations of revolutionary dissent. In the field of political science, rallies are regarded as democratic means of contestation; discontented citizens use peaceful protests with the aim of sharing and popularizing their dissatisfaction. In extenso, similar phenomena are efficient methods to hold the representatives accountable for their misdeeds or indifference – political elites adopt a trustee type of representation, but the represented prefers a `check and balances` system of representation.

When rallies occur, political figures express their uneasiness by arguing that their legitimacy is based on popular vote. Nevertheless, this line of argumentation lacks any logical significance because being an elected representative doesn’t imply that voter preferences cannot change over time, that as a representative you can choose what type of representation should be in place or that state officials cannot be under public scrutiny.

Contestation is a right of democratic citizens; when an elected official strongly disagrees, he or she isn’t worthy of your political support! We embrace only the political figures that accept to be evaluated `on the basis of the reasons they give for disobeying the preferences of their constituents`.

Bibliography Source 1 STANFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY, Political Representation, January 2017, [Online] Available at:, [Accessed at 30.04.2018].

Source 2 KIRCHHEIMER, O. (1966) Germany: The Vanishing Opposition. In: DAHL, R. A. (ed.) Political Opposition in Western Democracies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 237-259.

Source 3 SARTORI, G. (1976) Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 133.

Source 4 The Washington Post, Once-fringe Soros conspiracy theory takes center stage in Hungarian election, [Online] Available at:, [Accessed at 30.04.2018].

Source 5 SARTORI, Giovanni, “Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics”, American Political Science Review, vol. 64, no. 4, 1970, pp. 1033-1053.

Source 6 The New York Times, Thousands of Hungarians Protest Against Newly Elected Leader, [Online] Available at:, [Accessed at 26.04.2018].

Source 7 Adevarul, Un deputat PSD cere ca protestatarii din Piaţa Victoriei să fie alungaţi cu tunurile de apă, [Online] Available at:, [Accessed at 26.04.2018].

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