Representing Non-Representation

by Ed Alvarado

No taxation without representation!” This slogan was propagated throughout the Thirteen Colonies during the 1750s and 1760s. It underlined the sentiments that led to the American Revolution, and it revived ideals from the English Civil War regarding legitimate taxation and proper representation. But in 2016, during a time of globalization, migration and political argumentation, perhaps it is time to inquire about representation itself. This essay will make a case against what representation means today and the impact it has on political affairs.

A natural starting point would be numbers or more specifically, election results. Considering the worldwide attention that is given to the representative democracy of the United States, we begin with a look at the Presidential Election results since 1980. This timeframe is chosen because many researchers use the 1980s to define today’s Millennial generation or Generation Y. Furthermore, American influence on world politics has played an arguably prominent role in shaping the world during this generation’s formative years.

To begin with, the amount of people eligible to vote who actually voted was 58.23% at best (Obama 2008) and 49% at worst (Clinton 1996). This means that anywhere between half and 3/5 of the eligible population were casting a vote to shape American politics. Although this may seem like an expected and respectable voter turnout, it is important to put these numbers into context and to look at the bigger picture that emerges. The third column shows the amount of voters who chose the eventual winner. This figure was 58.77% at its highest (Reagan 1984) and 43.01% at its lowest (Clinton 1992), but it generally hovered around 50%. The final column, however, puts the issue of voter turnout and election winners together into a more proper context in which to analyze representation of the people.

At its best, the eventual winner received support from 31.31% of eligible voters, which were the voices of 23.09% of the total American population (Reagan 1984). This means that the winning votes of 54,455,075 people were said to represent 173,936,000 eligible voters, and the resulting policies would express the will of roughly 235,824,900 Americans. In smaller numbers, the statistics would translate into the following scenario: In a group of 100 people, only 74 were allowed to vote, only 53 actually voted and the winner “represents” all 100 people after receiving support from only 23. This might seem fine in theory, and it might be efficient in small groups, but there is a case to be made against representation when the winner’s decisions will affect/represent 180,369,825 non-partisan Americans and an incalculable number of world citizens (through foreign policy).

Furthermore, it is worth noting that many people living in the US with a direct link to the outside world (e.g. non-citizen residents) do not have the right to vote for the policy that affects them. This is particularly important because some non-citizens have lived in the United States for many years; they may be well integrated into more than one culture and/or they may be raising children within the American culture of which they are all a part. Their opinion is likely to consider the political effects of the election within both of their “home” countries, but it will not be represented by voting directly, or perhaps even indirectly, within the United States.

It is also important to keep in mind that the previous paragraph described the best-case empirical scenario (according to statistics). But instead of discussing the worst-case scenario, let us focus on a real scenario. As the opening paragraph stated, recent years have been shaped by globalization, migration and political argumentation. One key issue that encompasses all of these topics is the response to the refugee crisis in the Middle East, as well as the need for security against terrorism. Rather than focusing on these topics directly, there is one interesting figure in our US Presidential Elections table that leads to a plethora of counterfactuals.

Few would dispute that the world is still feeling the effects of America’s “War on Terror.” Between military interventions, stricter border/naturalization controls and the perception of Islam/Muslims in the West, the war against terrorism has been a prevailing theme of the 21st Century and arguably the legacy of the Bush Administration. Yet, most people might also recall that George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. The reason why Bush reached the presidency in 2000 is because of America’s “representative democracy.”

If we return to the polls, we may recall that Al Gore had roughly 500,000 more popular votes than Bush, and those who voted for Bush encompassed only 24.78% of the American electorate (18.07% of the American population). Once again, making the analogy with smaller numbers would mean that 18 people out of 100 voted for the winner, but this is made to represent 25 voices (since 27 people could not vote), and the winner takes/represents all. It is already a dreadful show of representation in a group of five people, but it becomes much worse when the 0.51% voting difference between the popular winner and the elected winner translates to 500,000 people.

It is not within the scope of this essay to discuss how Gore’s administration may have reacted to the events of 9/11; the point is that the leaders which imposed America’s will on the Middle East after 2001 were not even representative of the will of the American people in 2000. It was the representative structure of American politics that allowed an administration with less than 25% of voter support to amass and mobilize 100% of its military resources to fight terror within and especially outside American borders. Although this real-life example of misrepresentation does not make an indisputable case against representation itself, it should be enough to begin a line of questioning about what representation means, and how it serves the representer and the represented.

No taxation without representation!” This slogan from 250 years ago appears at first glance to focus on taxation, but the core demand is representation. It is arguably because of misrepresentation that North American colonists rebelled against the British, and Latin American creoles and mestizos rebelled against the Spaniards. Despite the fact that representation is a concept deeply ingrained and unquestioned in today’s political structures, the most powerful man in the world during the Millennials’ lifetime did not even receive1/3 of his votes from eligible voters or 1/4 of the American population.

  Estimated Voting Age Population
Total Votes Submitted Popular Vote for Winner (Percentage) Estimated Total U.S. Population % of Voting Age Population who voted for winner
(% of Total Population)
129,085,410 65,915,795
314.1121 M 28%
131,313,820 69,498,516
304.094 M 30.82%
Bush Jr
122,295,345* 62,040,610
292.8053 M 28.76%
Bush Jr
105,405,100* 50,456,002
282.1624 M 24.78%
96,277,634* 47,402,357
269.394,3 M 24.12%
104,426,659 44, 909, 889 (43.01%) 256.514,2 M 23.76%
91,594,809 48,886,097
244.499 M 26.77%
92,652,842 54,455,075
235.8249 M 31.31%
86,509,678 43,903,230
226.5423 M 26.67%

Voting data from: Federal Election Commission, 999 E Street, NW, Washington, DC 20463 (800) 424-9530 In Washington (202) 694-1000.
Total population estimated as of July of each year. Gathered from public data collected by Google. Original data from U.S. Census Bureau. Last updated: Jul 25, 2015
**2000 – Al Gore  – 50,999,897 votes (48.38%)
*2004 Totals do not include the 57,230 miscellaneous write-in, blank and void votes that were compiled as one total in New York
*2000 Totals do not include the 138,216 miscellaneous write-in, blank and void votes that were compiled as one total in New York.
*1996 Totals do not include the 123,000 write-in and blank votes that were compiled as one total in New York.



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