Who Represents You?

I have an old friend who has been saying for years that we should expand the House of Representatives to 10,000 members. Yes, 10,000 members.

Why? The Constitution, written in 1787, states that “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand,” (Article I, Section 2). Today, with a population of 300 million and a fixed membership of 435 (per a law passed in 1929), the ratio is 1:690,000. To get to the original ratio the Constitution prescribes, we would need, as my friend notes, 10,000 members of the House.

Research makes a good case for this idea. Most fundamentally, as common sense tells us, a lower ratio of representatives to citizens means that citizens have easier access to their representatives. And from there flow a number of other common-sense benefits: people don’t disengage because they feel like their vote is worthless—in fact, their vote is worth much more, so they engage in the process; candidates are forced to actually interact with real voters, rather than rely on “air campaigns” through mass media; and the issues of campaigns are more likely to reflect issues of concern to voters.

Of course, this kind of House-on-steroids image also likely strikes us unwieldy. How would a legislative body that large ever get anything done?

I will leave aside for now the question of how this might compare with the productivity of our current national legislature. Because my interest is less in the mechanics of this solution, and more in its premise: that not only does government work better when people are more closely represented; but that virtually all groups actually work better that way.

This isn’t rocket science. As anyone who has ever led anyone else will attest, it’s far easier to get people to buy in when they feel like they have a voice in the process than when they are asked to passively accept a decision they had no hand in making.

At Ask Big Questions, we teach facilitators how to start group conversations by establishing an agreement of mutual responsibility—a set of norms to govern the conversation. While we used to just have folks read the statement, we’ve learned over time that it works even better when the group can author it themselves, when we don’t just hand it to them.

That applies not only when a decision goes our way, but even—and more importantly—when it doesn’t. If we feel we’ve been represented, heard, that our interests have been represented, then we are far more likely to abide by the outcome—regardless of whether the outcome was the one we wanted. If we don’t feel we’ve been represented, we are both less likely to abide by the outcome, and less likely to engage in the process again in the future.

As I’ve written before, that capacity for sacrifice—to accept an outcome even when it isn’t in our favor—is the oil in the machine of democracy. That capacity is based on trust. And both of them hinge on whether we see ourselves represented in the process.

Today, when we ask the question, “Who represents you?” I find that a lot of us have trouble answering it—just as they have trouble trusting those who are elected to represent them. And that has a very corrosive effect on trust. As survey after survey shows, trust levels in government are at historic lows. That isn’t only because of the inevitable promise-breaking of politicians. It’s most fundamentally about the fact that most people don’t see themselves as represented in their government.

On both the micro and macro levels, representation is essential—for families, classrooms, workplaces, communities, and for society writ large. Without it, we cannot trust our political systems, and we wind up distrusting one another. As we work on the many challenges confronting us today, no more urgent challenge exists than enacting reforms that will help people be and feel better-represented. Our future depends on it.