Positive representation and John Adams's Thoughts on Government, 1776

Coming into this forum with a notion of positive representation in mind, which I think is plainly achieved by some meaningfully proportional evaluation of the vote cast, it has been of great concern to me that cardinal methods, whatever advantages they might have, obscure, arguably even destroy completely, information about which single option a voter most strongly supports, which is key to the concept of positive representation.

Since this concept seems to get rather short shrift, let me quote John Adams in his 1776 Thoughts on Government:

The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed, in constituting this representative assembly. It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or, in other words, equal interests among the people should have equal interests in it. Great care should be taken to effect this, and to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.

It is remarkable and ironic that this early essay on how American governments should proceed to organize themselves has been honored in many points, but on this point, clearly pointing to my principle of positive representation, remarkably few attempts, at highest at the level of city governments, and those much attacked, have ever been made, and we suffer a plague of plainly unfair, partial and corrupt elections that a proportional system would circumvent if conducted with elementary integrity.

Now I came to this site pretty critical of certain values I suspect tend to deviate from a sweeping interpretation of Adams’s stated goal of a “miniature exact portrait of the people at large.” Concerns about such purported evils as “center squeeze” seem at odds with a truly democratic vision.

I am aware that leaning on John Adams as a proper champion of democracy as such is a bit dubious; he was in fact a Federalist in his career, leaning as the American party system developed toward a side characterized by the notion some animals are more equal than others. In his exact language above one can note a certain wiggle room away from the idea of all persons being equal, and room for normative privileging of some interests above others perhaps. This I am against!

And leery of a preoccupation with electing so-called ‘moderates’ as a species of just this sort of invidious social ranking; a “moderate” might well be defined as someone with more “stake” in society; the Patriot/Framer generation spokesmen were often concerned to privilege property owners over those lacking it for instance. Thus what looks like moderation and reasonableness to some might look like skewing the whole game toward property against the less wealthy to others, and rightly so I suspect. Ultimately, there is no valid judge of merit save the people in their deliberation as equals.

And while positive representation certainly can enable voters to make the legislature a mirror of themselves in miniature, whether they choose to do so or not is up to them. It has been remarked for generations that American lawmakers are very disproportionately from a legal background for instance. But on one hand, they are concerned with governing society through the medium of written law for the most part. (Legislatures have other functions too in the US generic constitutional conception of checks and balances–“advise and consent” on both executive and judicial appointments for instance, and investigation as part of their general check on executive power–but most of these too lean heavily on legal expertise).

And insofar as legislative bodies are also clearinghouses, fora in which diverse interests elected by various factions of the people serve as advocates and negotiators for these sectors, again this kind of wrangling is pretty much in a lawyer’s wheelhouse.

Therefore it would not dismay me too much if we were, when the dust settles on our reforms, to continue to elect a disproportional number of persons from a legal background to the legislatures; it would mean that various constitutencies had judged that a bunch of expert lawyers being a strong part of their delegation is an asset in the necessary bargaining, as well as avoiding rookie mistakes in the fashioning of legislation which can pass muster in our common law system.

I certainly think though we could do with more people from more diverse professional backgrounds, with “professional” being very broad in construction. It should be possible for steelworkers, housewives, specific religious denominations, blocs representing specific ethnicities, or any other specialized category one thinks of to elect a delegation, proportional to the portion of their share in the population who agrees that putting their bloc specific interests forward is important and agrees with the general program this bunch settles on–and for rival blocs of the same groups to also come forward with alternative programs.

It should be up to the voters to decide which factors to organize around, and thus which representatives to put forward as their face, voice and trusted agents.

All of this I think is quite in line with what Adams, often cited as the first advocate of PR on the basis of this remark, was getting at. I don’t suppose we’d agree on many other points but I have fair respect for Adams as a serious thinker on these issues.

Basing multimember representation on cardinal rather than single choice or ranked choice methods seems promising to me then, provided one can meaningfully devise something corresponding to “proportional” representation such that any group, concentrated or scattered, forming on any axis of organizing priority issues, that amounts to a quota share of the whole body to be elected can reliably get its representatives elected in fair proportion to the actual size of that portion of the electorate that supports their program.

Most people are talking about something very insidious when they use that term: the artificially low reflection of support consensus candidates receive from our current voting systems. FPTP and IRV only say that a compromise has 3% first-preference votes, rather than maybe the 40% or 50% total support, secondary or first, that they have. It should always be a choice whether to elect such a candidate, but the problem is that such candidates don’t look very appetizing when they seem unpopular by the metrics we use today. The other thing is that it is not possible in FPTP or IRV to give partial support to compromisers and full support to one’s favorite.

Please look at Sequential Monroe or Apportioned Cardinal Voting. It’s hard to imagine that these would fail to deliver what you seek. Also, if the system to be used is cumulative in nature, I think allowing voters to decide what proportion of their cumulative vote should go to whom would be great; maybe they could give 1/10th of it to someone they wanted to compromise with, 9/10ths for their favorite, etc.