Towards a General Theory of Political Representation


Andrew Rehfeld is assistant professor of political science, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63130.


Nondemocratic “representatives” increasingly act on the global stage, as “representatives” of their dictatorships to the United Nations, or when an NGO represents prisoners of war. Standard accounts of political representation depend upon democratic institutions (like elections) and a certain kind of proper activity (like deliberation and constituent accountability) and thus cannot explain how these people are representatives at all. I argue that the standard account of political representation is thus inadequate to explain political representation throughout the globe. I offer a general theory of political representation which explains representation simply by reference to a relevant audience accepting a person as such. When audiences use democratic rules of recognition, the familiar cases arise. When audiences use nondemocratic rules of recognition, nondemocratic cases arise. The result is that political representation, per se, is not a democratic phenomenon at all. The account offers a more parsimonious explanation of political representation, providing a tool for analysis of political representation throughout the globe.