Hannah Arendt’s ideal political constitution was as follows: each town or small community elects representatives for local assemblies. Local assemblies elect representatives for regional assemblies. Regional assemblies elect representatives for a national assembly. Only this kind of polity could be authentically representative, and authentically legitimate. The original self-arranging, self-generating assemblies are the core, real expressions of political action.
There was an actual movement for this kind of polity in late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain. The movement responded to long-delayed action on Parliamentary Reform (which would not come until 1832) on the theory that some kind of a convention or association could actually become a legitimate anti-parliament, if it were based on local assemblies.
There is something inspiring about this vision: authority based on personal political involvement. Representation that actually represents. Though indirect, people seem to determine their course. The State is an actual reflection of the nation.
There has been a persistent philosophical question, though, about whether any one thing can ever represent another. In political thought, opponents of democracy point out that a candidate can only represent the majority who voted for her. Even deeper, it would seem impossible that one person could ever really represent another (especially a group). Each person has a will, and desires, and perceptions.
And even deeper than that, a representation of a representation of a representation is totally unreliable. Signs are hazy indicators on their own, and layers of signs are even worse. The “Support our Troops” ribbon, for example, is the product of a series of signs. An old song from Puritan times told of a woman, wearing a yellow ribbon, enduring a test while she awaits the return of her beau. The U.S. military eventually picked up the song to refer to the girl who might be awaiting her soldier while he is away. This idea was popularized (in a non-military theme) in a 1970s song, which is probably why a national chord was struck during the Iran hostage crisis when the wife of an American foreign service officer tied a yellow ribbon around the tree in her front yard. The act became symbolic of the national waiting, and the ribbon was used widely when the hostages returned. A decade later, the patriotism aspect was exploited in the Gulf War with the “Support Our Troops” slogan.
Representations upon representations are not good indicators of whatever they originally meant. The Arendtian vision is to create legitimate authority based on legitimate representation – but authority is only partially based on representation. It’s also based on the need for law, order, and decisions. Because of that, a vote for your Congressperson is a vote for a person who will have authority over you. Plenty of abuse is possible here, but we in America have tempered some of it by creating different kinds of representation (House and Senate) and different kinds of authority (in which local government is not merely a piece of the State bureaucracy).
American politics is partially about identity and representation, which is why we take ownership of it. And it is partially about the fact that complete representation is impossible, and it can never fully give authority. So we are partially non-political. There will always be some disaffection from the government, because it is never fully “ours” – it is never fully “us.” And that means we have to turn our identity elsewhere.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.