The mandate theory of representation states that an elected representative should behave as a true agent to his/her principal, the constituency. Representatives are therefore expected to serve the interests of their constituents. Hence the theory requires that the policies adopted by incumbents be those preferred by voters. The theory also requires that political campaigns convey information to voters such that voters can make an informed choice between alternative policies. In addition, policies proposed in political campaigns should be those in the interest of the voters.
The theory rests on of a number of assumptions in order for representation to work properly. First, representatives must believe that they are obliged to behave according to the preferences found in the constituency or to have the same interests as their voters. If this requirement is not met, the constituency needs a credible sanction mechanism that can be used to induce the representative to act according to the interests of the constituency. One mechanism is electoral defeat of the representative, but with years between elections, this is a rather blunt and inefficient mechanism. Representatives may choose to breach campaign promises early in a term in hopes that voters will have forgotten by the next election.
A second assumption is that politicians should want reelection. Without such a desire, it is difficult, if not impossible, for constituents to sanction representatives. Hence, if term limits are imposed, it should be expected that representatives in their last term are much less representative than their first-term counterparts.
Third, it should be possible for a representative to get information on what constituents’ preferences are on various issues. If this information is not available, either through the press or advocacy groups, it is extremely difficult for the representative to act appropriately. Furthermore, information asymmetries may cause problems: Information must be of sufficient quality that it reflects the distribution of preferences in the constituency. Deciding which information to rely on is therefore important, since a representative could be misled by his sources of information.
Finally, politicians must be concerned with the credibility of their promises. Since promises about the future are what opposition politicians have to offer, they must be able to credibly propose policies that voters believe will be enacted should the candidate gain office. Candidates need this credibility to send signals that their promises in campaigns can be trusted, and their signals must contain information on which choices between candidates can be based. Candidates who cannot send this signal cannot convince voters that their policies are in the interest of voters, even if this might be the case from an objective point of view.
- Manin, Bernard, Adan Przeworski, and Susan Stokes. “Elections and Representation.” In Democracy, Accountability and Representation. Edited by Bernard Manin, Adam Przeworski, and Susan Stokes, 29–54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Mansbridge, Jane. “Rethinking Representation.” American Political Science Review 97, no. 4 (2003): 515–528.
- Pitkin, Hanna F. Representation. London: Beresford Book Services, 1969.
- Rehfeld, Andrew. “Representation Rethought: On Trustees, Delegates, and Gyroscopes in the Study of Political Representation and Democracy.” American Political Science Review 103, no. 2 (2009): 214–230.
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