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2004-05-28

Representation 

In the end, everybody should represent himself or herself to the rest of the world. But of course that is not possible in many situations, and so representation of others and their opinions has a chance. In the developed representative democracies, political parties and their spokes-persons represent big slices of the population. How do they do it?

In a recent commentary ('Lob des Quereinstiegs' in Der Standard on 7 May 2004), Josef Broukal, former news-presenter turned "communication specialist" for SPÖ, wrote that journalists moving into politics have to learn this, among other things:
One has to learn to represent voters and not truths. Fortunately this is not always a contradiction, but sometimes it is. As a journalist, one is usually in the role of the judge, but as a politician one is always in the role of the lawyer.

(Man muss lernen, Wähler zu vertreten und nicht Wahrheiten. Das ist zum Glück nicht immer ein Gegensatz, aber manchmal doch. Man ist als Journalist meist in der Rolle des Richters, als Politiker aber immer in der Rolle des Anwalts.
This is worrying. So politicians are not responsible for acting in a truthful way, because they represent a clientele with narrow self-interests? Frankly, I think this is nonsense. If truth can be determined, it has to be upheld, even by the politician. In such situations there should not even be different opinions. But of course, in real life political questions, truth is very hard to determine because of lack of information. What is representation then when information is insufficient? Is it the attempt to see the world with the same bias that the fictitious average voter of one's party has? Or do parties recognise a number of distinct voter groups, and try to mediate between the different biases of these groups?

There are cases where parties start out from one bias, then find that their voters come also from groups that have a different background/outlook and in consequence shift their positions so as to be more representative. I believe the Austrian Greens over the last 20 years are an example of this. They started from a position on the left, found later that they get a fair number of bourgeois votes, and now try to appeal to two different constituencies at the same time.

Then there are those politicians with 'visions' (famously despised by former SPÖ-chancellor Franz Vranitzky, who said that people with visions needed to have their eyes checked), who want to be representatives of another group of voters than their current one - often of a bigger one. Jörg Haider had the vision to represent the dissatisfied lower middle-class instead of a bloodless and shrinking mix of liberals and German-nationalists, and so he redefined his political vehicle, the FPÖ, accordingly.

Then we have the avantgarde-concept, the party as elite that leads its clientele towards new shores, towards opinions and positions that the constituency is not yet aware of. Exciting but dangerous, as history has proven.

In sum, political representation is already a dynamic relationship. I would like it to become even more dynamic: new communication tools like the web will make communication ever more efficient, new representations should develop more quickly and easily. This could be a threat to the existing political representatives, unless they keep changing fast enough to keep their constituencies on board. The vision would be a landscape of parties and representatives that emerge and disappear again in a yearly rhythm, closely connected to constituencies by efficient means of communication, and motivated by common positions on current topics and issues. And now I'll go check my eyes.


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