The professional model of representative democracy

by Tim Harding

Representative democracy is a form of democracy in which citizens elect representatives who then vote on legislation or policy issues, as opposed to a direct democracy where citizens vote on issues themselves.  Two of the main theories of representative democracy are the ‘trustee model’ and the ‘delegate model’.  In this essay, I argue that the trustee model makes more sense than the delegate modelI also consider some refinements of the trustee model, such as those identified by Mansbridge and Rehfeld.  Lastly, I propose what I call the ‘professional model’, where a political representative should act in the long-term best interests of his or her constituents, in a similar ethical obligation to the clients of a lawyer or medical doctor, even if this might be contrary to the expressed preferences of those constituents.

Although democracy was born in Classical Athens, it began as direct democracy rather than representative democracy, when Athens was small enough to hold mass meetings of citizens to decide major issues.  The Roman Republic was a mixture of direct democracy via various citizen assemblies and representative democracy via the Senate.  In the late Middle Ages of Western Europe, representative democracy arose from a pragmatic need for the monarch to obtain agreement from the aristocracy to the raising of taxes, mainly for military campaigns.  It was not until the 18th century that political thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke and James Madison put forward theoretical rather than purely practical arguments for representative democracy.

The delegate model of representation is the idea that representatives should act as the mouthpiece of their constituents and act in accordance with their preferences.  This model is motivated by the view that politicians mainly exist to act as the agents of voters, who cannot realistically participate in all legislative procedures and decisions (Aten 2009, 1).  The trustee model of representation is where politicians are afforded discretion over policy and legislation, even though their decisions may not always coincide with the preferences of their constituency.  They are entrusted to vote in the long-term interests of their state or nation. This model is motivated by the view that politicians should be more than simply delegates for voters in absentia: they should be relied on for their competence, judgment, and leadership (Aten 2009, 1).

The delegate model is an implication of Rousseau’s seminal treatise The Social Contract, although he does not use this term expressly.  Instead, he refers to the supremacy of the ‘general will’ of the people.

‘Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole’ (Rousseau 1762, 214).

Rousseau further implies that the trustee model is impossible in a true democracy, because it means ‘willing for others’ and no man can will for another without being ruled by another (Pitkin 1967, 207).  In other words, the will of the people should be embodied in the actions of government officials; and the way to do this is to compute it by consulting the citizens about their preferences (Riker 1982, 11).

The delegate model has since been criticised (but also as supported) by various political theorists.  For instance, McCrone and Kuklinski (1979, 278-281) have argued that the delegate model entails meeting two conditions, as follows.

‘Condition 1. The representative must believe himself to be obliged to behave in accordance with constituency preferences, i.e., he must consider himself a delegate.’

‘Condition 2. The constituency must organize and express its preferences in a way that allows the representative to develop a reasonably accurate perception of constituency opinion.’

Whilst political representatives may profess to satisfy Condition 1, often for electoral reasons, they cannot logically do this without Condition 2 also being satisfied; and it is impractical to expect constituencies to instruct their representatives on every issue they need to vote upon.  Representatives will need to exercise their own judgement on at least some issues, and on this basis the delegate model breaks down (McCrone and Kuklinski 1979, 280-281).

The Irish MP and political philosopher Edmund Burke is generally first credited with enunciating the trustee model of representative democracy when he says ‘your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ (Burke 1774, 150).  Burke supports this view with an argument based upon a deliberative model of democracy when he says:

‘…Government and legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination; and, what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?’ (Burke 1774, 151).

In this way, Burke is arguing, in effect, that the trustee model is a natural consequence of deliberative democracy, because important issues should be decided by representatives after parliamentary deliberation rather than by the voters before deliberation.

This connection between deliberative democracy and the trustee model is also found in the writings of the ‘Father of the US Constitution’ James Madison.  During his years in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 to 1786, Madison became increasingly frustrated with what he saw as excessive democracy.  He thought that legislators should act in the interests of the whole state, even if this contradicted the wishes of their local constituents (Wood 2011, 131-132).

In his essay Federalist No. 10 (1787), James Madison defines a ‘faction’ as a number of citizens united by common passions or interests adverse to the rights of other citizens.  Such a faction can even be a majority.  Madison’s objection to factions is that they tend to have fixed positions on issues that are inimical to deliberative democracy.  Madison argues that a republic (by which he means representative democracy based on deliberation and the trustee model) is a better way of controlling the negative effects of factions than democracy (by which he means the delegate model).  By extension, Madison argues in favour of federalism on the grounds that a federal US government would have a ‘greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican rather than democratic government’ (Madison 1787, 4).

The trustee model is also supported by 19th century philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, although for different reasons.  Mill argues that the public at large have insufficient information or interest to participate in political decision-making other than in minimal way such as by voting in elections (Mill 1861, 202-218).  Such minimal participation is consistent with the trustee model; whereas more active participation would encourage a delegate model.

In her book Participation and Democratic Theory, Carole Pateman goes further and argues that an increase in participation by present non-participants could upset the stability of the democratic system.  Large-scale empirical surveys have shown that current non-participants tend to be more authoritarian and less pluralist in their values – less likely to value freedom of speech and diversity of opinion (Pateman 1970, 3).  This is another argument in favour of the trustee model over the agent model.

In the 20th century, there have been theoretical refinements by philosophers such as Mansbridge and Rehfeld, who have argued for multiple further categories of representative democracy beyond the binary trustee/delegate split.

Jane Mansbridge (2003, 515) discusses the traditional ‘promissory’ form of representation, which is the idea that during election campaigns representatives make promises to constituents, which they then keep or fail to keep.  From empirical studies in the previous 20 years, Mansbridge identifies three new forms of representation, which she calls ‘anticipatory’, ‘gyroscopic’, and ‘surrogate’ representation.   Anticipatory representation is where representatives focus on what they think their constituents will approve at the next election.  In gyroscopic representation, the representative looks within, as a basis for action, to principles derived in part from the representative’s own background. Surrogate representation occurs when legislators represent constituents outside their own districts.  Mansbridge acknowledges that none of these forms of representation map well to the trustee or delegate models; although I would still place the gyroscopic form in the trustee category.

Andrew Rehfeld (2009, 229) argues that the binary trustee/delegate formulation obscures three underlying conceptual distinctions of aims, source of judgement, and responsiveness.  From these three distinctions he identifies eight ideal types of representation of which the traditional terms ‘trustee’ and ‘delegate’ are but two.

In my own view, neither the traditional trustee/delegate models, nor the more recent forms described by Mansbridge and Rehfeld adequately address the important ethical obligation of political representatives to act in the best interests of their constituents, whether or not this coincides with the expressed preferences of the constituents.  The main justification given by Burke and Madison for the trustee model is that it facilitates deliberative democracy, with the implication being that deliberation usually results in better quality decisions.  I would also argue that political representatives (especially government ministers) have access to the best expert advice in the country, not only from the public service, but also from consultants and universities.  The ordinary voter does not have this access to expertise, which I think is a strong argument against the delegate model.

One way to illustrate the important distinction between acting in the best interests of a client rather than simply in accordance with the client’s expressed preferences is to draw an analogy with the medical and legal professions.  For example, let us consider where a patient asks her medical doctor to prescribe a certain drug that she has read about on the internet.  Her doctor refuses to prescribe this drug on the grounds that it would not be the patient’s best interests – it could be contraindicated for the doctor’s diagnosis or it might interfere with another drug that the patient is taking.  Another example is where a lawyer advises her client to plead guilty to an offence, which would be in the client’s best interests but often not in accordance with the clients initially expressed preference.  These examples are analogous to a situation where a political representative acts in the best interests of the voters, on the basis of expert advice or intelligence, but contrary to their preferences as might be expressed in an opinion poll.  This provides us with an ethical rationale for the trustee model that goes beyond the traditional justification of deliberative democracy.  It exemplifies the difference between the ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ of constituents.

I think that politicians should be judged on their representational performance rather than simple obedience to client preferences.  If a constituent is dissatisfied with the performance outcomes of their representative, they can vote for a different politician at the next election, just as a client can move to another doctor or lawyer.  In this way, political representatives are accountable to their constituents in a similar manner to the ethical obligations of doctors and lawyers to their clients.  I will call this the ‘professional model’ of representation, even though politicians normally do not have a formal set of professional standards or ethics like the traditional professions (apart from ministerial codes of conduct as used in Australia).

An obvious objection to the trustee model and its variants is that to the extent a representative deviates from the preferences of her constituents, we no longer have democracy.  My responses to this objection are firstly, there are at least some policy issues where constituent preferences are unexpressed or unclear, and in these cases the representative will have to exercise independent judgement.  Secondly, voters tend to judge representatives at elections on overall performance and promises rather than adherence to particular constituent preferences.  Thirdly, representatives are accountable to their constituents at the ballot box – ultimate power remains with the people, so in that sense we do still have democracy.

In conclusion, I think that the delegate model is deficient for the reasons given by McCrone and Kuklinski (1979, 280-281).  The trustee model therefore makes more sense than the delegate model; and it is better for society because it facilitates deliberative democracy and better quality decision making.  I think that the ‘professional model’ that I have described is a better form of the trustee model, because, in addition to the advantages of deliberative democracy, it also fulfils an ethical obligation of representatives to act in the best long-term interests of their constituents, for which they are ultimately accountable to the people via the ballot box.


Aten, H., (2009) Competing Informed Principals and Representative Democracy. Job Market Paper, Washington: Department of Economics, Georgetown University.

Burke, E., ‘Speech at the Conclusion of the Poll, 3 November 1774’, in W.M. Elofson and J.A. Woods (eds) The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol.III: Party, Parliament, and the American War 1774-1780, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996, pp.68-70.

Madison, J., (1787), ‘The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection.’ Federalist No.10. New York Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787. Transcript from the National Archives Online Portal accessed 22 May 2017.

Mansbridge, J., (2003) ‘Rethinking Representation’, American Political Science Review Vol. 97, No. 4 , 515-528.

McCrone, D. J. and Kuklinski, J. H., (1979) ‘The Delegate Theory of Representation’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 278-300.

Mill J.S., (1861) ‘Representative Government’ in Lindsay, A., (1910) Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government, London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Pateman, C., (1970). Participation and Democratic Theory, London: Cambridge University Press.

Pitkin, H. F.; (1967), The Concept of Representation, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Riker, W. H., (1982), Liberalism Against Populism, Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Rousseau, J., (1762) ‘The Social Contract’ in Somerville, J., and Santoni, R., (1963), Social and Political Philosophy. New York: Anchor.

Wood, Gordon S. (2011), The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. London: The Penguin Press.

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Filed under Essays and talks

3 responses to “The professional model of representative democracy

  1. I came to this from “the end of representative politics” and I have to read both again but I expect next time I bump into you over a drink, we shall have a detailed argument. Don’t worry, I think I mostly agree with you, with the caveat, I don’t expect politicians to act on anyone’s behalf but their own.


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