Representing Parts and Parties

3 August 2021

This is the fourth and final review in our “Parliamentary Thinking” book forum.


Review of Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation and Democracy in Victorian Britain by Gregory Conti (Cambridge University Press, 2019).


Greg Conti’s first monograph is an important, and exemplarily well-written, contribution to a fast-growing body of literature in historical political theory that makes the concepts and mechanics of representative institutions its core focus. The argument that I would like to make and briefly develop is that Conti’s is, at once, a contribution to the history of representative government—its principles, theories, and practices—and to the history of political parties (as opposed to factions)—a cardinal ingredient in the recipe for modern-day representation but also, in the nineteenth century, a relatively recent, and still controversial, newcomer on the stage of political theory and practice. It is one of the book’s greatest merits to remind its readers of the significant overlap between these two histories. By thoroughly exploring a specific and foundational phase in the trajectory of representative government, Conti has also given us a concise but equally important account of political parties and their place in Victorian debates about representative politics and parliamentary deliberation.


My comments will be divided in two sections. First, I will consider the advantages of the distinctive way (as I shall explain) in which Conti blends the insights of intellectual history and the history of political thought to address and re-orient debates at the core of contemporary democratic theory. Second, I will zoom in on a topic that runs throughout the five chapters of the book and is integral to the broader history of representative government that Conti retrieves: the relationship between parts and whole—that is, between the various groups that demand to have their claims voiced and represented, on the one hand, and the Parliament that aims to “mirror” the nation as accurately as possible. Finally, I will draw on my comments to pose two broad sets of questions to Conti.


The synergy between history and theory

Parliament the Mirror of the Nation revolves around a few “cardinal beliefs” about the importance of history for contemporary democratic theory. First is the axiom that a “richer historicization” of political thought is a helpful compass for those who navigate the stormy water of contemporary politics. Having a more accurate sense of what disputes shaped the world that we now inhabit allows modern-day political scientists and theorists to have a more sophisticated understanding of the institutional landscape that we might otherwise take for granted.


Second, adding context to the study of the history and practices of representative government allows us to correct some “mischaracterizations” about political ideologies and the relation among their respective, often competing, projects. Conti warns his readers that the story he tells about the nineteenth-century tension between liberalism and democracy, or between democracy and representation, might sound unfamiliar and even counterintuitive. Relatedly, the book corrects long-held and unquestioned assumptions that are foundational to contemporary democratic theory, providing a sense of “mismatch” that can hopefully be as refreshing and awakening as it may be disorienting. For instance, the notion that “descriptive representation” is, and always has been, a primordial democratic concern rests on an equation between democracy and “a politics of presence” that was alien to the mindset of the intellectual progenitors of our representative governments. Mid- and late-Victorian pursuits of a Parliament that could accurately “mirror” the nation were envisioned in antithesis to, rather than in the service of, democracy. Similarly, they shared little to nothing with today’s prevailing (and narrower) understanding of descriptive representation as an individual attribute, based on a common demographic identity between a single MP or official and a group of citizens.


Another historical amnesia that the book seeks to treat concerns the discrepancy between those ends that, in scholarly and public debates alike, are taken to be defining features of a genuinely democratic society—representation, deliberation, diversity, inclusion—and the institutional arrangements that, during the golden age of liberal parliamentarism, were widely imagined to be conducive to such goals. A particularly significant example is in chapter 2, where Conti points out that, among the pre-1832 champions of the “unreformed Parliament,” those who strongly opposed the enfranchisement of certain groups did so precisely in the name of making the legislature fully representative in the descriptive sense. That is, they thought the pre-1832 Parliament better capable of “mirroring” those parts of the nation that were opiniated about politics and thus had the potential to contribute to the shaping of public opinion and the making of laws.


Another example of mismatch between past and present accounts of representative government is provided in chapter 4. Readers are reminded that proportional representation in Victorian England did not necessarily entail the idea of equality for, at once, each vote and each voter. Indeed, it was possible, and to some even desirable, to embrace the belief in the equal value of every vote while also embracing the elitist idea that not all voters are equal. The most eloquent supporter of this cross-eyed notion of electoral equality—that is, a simultaneous commitment to the quantitative equality of ballots and to the qualitative inequality of those who cast them—was John Stuart Mill. He famously combined the egalitarian and individualistic outlook of the single transferrable vote system with the class-, education-, and property-based requirements of the plural voting system.


As these few examples demonstrate, Conti’s commitment to a synergy between history and theory has the potential to correct our vision of the present when it is either short-sighted (and thus lacks perspective) or far-sighted (and thus lacks precision). It is a powerful antidote to intellectual determinism, unearthing the variety of alternative options that were articulated not only in the writings of well-known, canonical authors but also by less familiar actors, thinkers, and “in-between figures.”


Parts and whole. Or: on the fear of broken mirrors and distorted reflections

One theme that loomed large in nineteenth-century English debates about descriptive representation and that resonates widely throughout the book (though it is not always fully unpacked) is the role of parts and parties. For a long time, these two notions did not coincide in the crafting of a truly representative government. I will focus my comments on the first of the three species within the genus of descriptive representation that Conti classifies. This is the “mirror theory,” or the theory of “variety of suffrages.” The two phrases are almost interchangeable, their difference being only one between ends and means and their respective priority (that is, either the goal of the Parliament as a miniaturized version of the nation or the diverse electoral regulations across constituencies to accomplish the goal of mirroring).


The concern with the relationship between parts and whole—that is, between the reality of the nation, with its multiple groups, and the ideal of the Parliament as the nation writ small—lay at the core of the mindset and normative imagination of the variety-of-suffragists. The advocates of the “mirror theory” were a broad church. They developed a panoply of institutional schemes and formulas that rested on different sociologies of the nation and its cleavages but which were equally meant to produce a House of Commons as variegated as the nation that it sought to mirror. However, advocates of the “mirror theory” agreed on four foundational values: justice, public opinion, deliberation, and stability. Within this constellation, the emphasis on representativeness as a “cardinal political good” was the guiding star. It allowed the theorists of mirroring to rework each of the four values from the standpoint of the ways in which it presupposed (and in turn forged) a specific vision of how the whole and its parts ought to be represented. In other words, integral to the intellectual and institutional debates on representation in Victorian England was a commitment to understanding how the nation’s parts should interact with each other and, in turn, how they should contribute to re-presenting the whole to which they belonged, once their respective claims have gained institutional visibility and presence within the legislative through the mediation of political parties.


First, advocates of the variegated franchise spoke of justice in terms of inclusivity rather than electoral equality. In the words of William Rathbone Greg, the “fair representation of all classes” (my emphasis) was what differentiated representative government from both democracy (feared and dismissed as mob rule) and oligarchy (scorned and dismissed as propertied-elite rule). Mid-Victorian variety-of-suffragists did not believe in the right of every citizen to have an equal share in their potential to forge policymaking through the ballot (as modern-day liberal democracies instead do, through the principle of “one head one vote”). Rather, they championed the right of every citizen in the nation to be ruled by a sociologically inclusive—and thus descriptively representative—assembly. Just parliaments were those that did not leave any part of the nation outside their arena. Walter Bagehot (among many others) eloquently emphasized this view in fierce disagreement with the “capacitarian”, meritocratic account of parliamentary politics and representative government heralded by the French doctrinaires. In other words, those who called for the differentiated franchise in Victorian Britain feared that one part could monopolize the nation’s most visible stage: the Parliament. Besetting their critique of democracy and oligarchy as defective regime types that violated the demands of representativeness and inclusivity was, indeed, the memory of the factional potential of a polity’s parts—that is, their tendency to turn, from parts of the whole, into parts against the whole.


Second, the concern with parts was central to the theorization of representative government as the empire of public opinion and of the Parliament as its most precious and visible throne. As Conti shows, those who defended the exclusion of specific classes from the exercise of political rights did so in the name of the “opinion-holding principle.” They argued that extending the franchise to rural workers or to women—just to provide two significant cases of excluded “parts” —would add nothing to the representativeness of the assembly. Precisely because they had no time to read or care about politics, those politically voiceless groups had to remain such; their voicelessness was justified by their opinionless-ness. Including such groups would only weaken the quality of the Parliament as the locus of citizens’ public opinions and cradle of the nation’s public opinion.


Conti emphasizes the anti-democratic use of the opinion-holding principle among advocates for an unreformed Parliament. He explicitly alerts his readers to the striking fact that “the first way in which the value of the rule of public opinion entered into mid-century mirror theory was to justify exclusion of the non-opinion-holding segments of the nation.” This followed from the cognitivist argument that a less inclusive Parliament was more accurately representative, as it made the ability of each “part” to think and debate about politics the passport for active political membership. The cognitivists warned about the deleterious effects of an assembly that aims to mirror the nation in its entirety. Above all they warned about the danger of a Parliament filled with “distinctions without differences.” Enfranchising parts, classes, groups that have nothing to contribute to the quality of parliamentary life would only enhance conflict and divisions rather than the high-minded and well-argued exchange of ideas that was taken to be the “spirit” (almost in a Montesquievian sense) of parliamentarism.


A distinctive reading of the relationship between the whole and its parts (and among the various parts of the whole) also informed the general conception of public opinion that the subscribers to the mirror theory embraced. Defining the normativity of what Bagehot labelled “the resolution of the national mind” were four attributes: (1) its mid-term durability, which distinguished citizens’ genuine public opinions from the contingent and short-lived whims intrinsic to electoral politics; (2) its long-term open-endedness (to be truly reflective of the nation and its constantly evolving parts, public opinion must be free to fluctuate and change according to generational shifts); (3) the primacy of groups, rather than individuals (which made mirroring the nation a task way more complex and sophisticated than mere counting heads); (4) finally, diversity. Against the monolithic uniformity of beliefs typical of despotic societies, proponents of the variegated franchise claimed that, for Parliament to properly mirror the nation, it had to bring together and cross-fertilize what Mill famously labeled “partial truths”–or the ability of each part to illuminate one specific side of the topic under consideration. Together, these partial truths would contribute to a fuller and better understanding of the topic as a whole. How so?


The answer that variety-of-suffragists provided was deliberation, which allowed them to escape the partiality of an imperfect mirroring (that is, the dystopia of a class Parliament). Deliberation would instead create an epistemologically robust legislature wherein public opinion could be both the object of representation and the means through which parts would transcend their one-sidedness. Relatedly, these epistemological advantages of intra-party deliberation were seen as the guarantee for a fair and respective inter-play among the various parts of society (and the various parties in the assembly). Toleration and freedom of discussion would curb sectarian views of the common good, enhance the respect for political opponents, provide the same opportunities for all groups to participate in policymaking and, by doing so, foster domestic tranquility and, above all, political and institutional stability—the fourth of the guiding principles of the “mirror theory”.


Strongly skeptical of these principles was the second paradigm of descriptive representation that competed for hegemony in Victorian Britain—the one that Conti refers to as the “democratic theory” model. Its concern with representing all of the nation’s parts prompted calls for a more inclusive franchise, a more diversified array of opinions among MPs, and, overall, a radical critique of the democratic credentials of the variety-of-suffragists (whose notion of mirroring, it was claimed, was intimately conservative). However, it was the third account of descriptive representation that made parties—rather than just parts—foundational to its political theory and practice.


The model of “personal” or “proportional representation” (PR) sought to square the circle of whether, and how, it was possible to harmonize the demands of descriptivism with the universality of suffrage in a democratic polity. Victorian PR was synonym with Harean STV—that is, the system of Single Transferable Vote engineered by Thomas Hare in the late 1850s. The dystopia of an excessive reliance on parties under increasingly democratic conditions was a driving force behind the success of the PR movement. At the same time, as Conti illustrates in the final pages of chapter 5, the critique and the appreciation of parties became two converging and powerful weapons in the hands of those who rejected the Harean scheme in its present form.


On the one hand, its anti-party critics equated PR with party hegemony. In doing so, they warned against the centralization of representative government by “military-style” parties, the shift from parliamentary supremacy to the sovereignty of party machineries, and the worsening of pathologies that were anathema to the Victorian ideal of a deliberative assembly (political fanaticism and an uncompromising mindset above all). On the other hand, its party-friendly critics praised the importance of strong parties precisely to counter what they saw as deleterious outcomes of the Harean system in its present form. Reconciling popular consent with the leadership of the wisest few and keeping parliamentary leaders accountable to the broader electorate were celebrated as the two cardinal virtues of party government (which did not necessarily entail a two-party system). Furthermore, a pluralistic party system had the potential to tame the hegemony of oligarchic cliques within parties and make party life more deliberative, in turn correcting the elitism —real or perceived—of the PR movement. It was this moderate and reformist strand that articulated “the first full defense of the modern party”—a concise statement that evokes two important shifts in the history, theories, and practices of representative government and democracy: the emancipation of parties from the long shadow of factions and the progression from parts to proper parties.



Conti makes an original contribution to debates that cut across the subfields (and even the sub-subfields) of political science and history. Based on my comments, I would like to pose two final questions to the author.


In the Introduction he claims that the monograph “was not written in order to exemplify any particular method of doing either intellectual history or political theory—at least not consciously.” However, it is evident that guiding his survey of the rival visions of “descriptive representation” in Victorian Britain is a foundational belief about the value of historicizing questions that resonate powerfully in the present. Conti’s excavation of debates on representative government is a history for the sake of (a better) democratic theory—an ambitious intellectual enterprise that crumbles boundaries between neighboring disciplines and is possible when history is a dress worn respectfully but lightly. Doing so means resorting to a form of political theorizing that does not neglect the importance of context but never fetishizes such insights as if they were specimens preserved in amber.


If this is the case, Conti’s project could be affiliated with two families: a “political political theory” à la Waldron, concerned with theorizing, also through the aid of political thought and ideas, the institutions and mechanisms that make our democracies work, or a historical political theory that unearths the ancestry (or prehistory) of such institutions and mechanisms as well as the values and ideals that they presuppose and pursue. These two paradigms are not mutually exclusive but are forged and driven by different methodological commitments. The former originates from a dissatisfaction, among a certain strand of normative political theorists, with how moral philosophy, and its concern with ideals in the abstract, has come to eclipse the study of the actual flesh and bones of the landscape, political and institutional, that we inhabit. The latter, instead, is indicative of a research agenda that is first and firmly rooted in the domain of history. It ranges from Terence Ball’s urge, in the late 1980s, to retrieve the pre-history of party government and legitimate opposition to recent projects that have carried Skinner’s famous Liberty before Liberalism in new directions. One might think of Teresa Bejan’s history of equality before egalitarianism or Melissa Lane’s account of Greek constitutions and office holding before constitutionalism. Where does Conti’s Parliament, the Mirror of the Nation sit, exactly? In the former category, in the latter one, or at the intersection of both?


The way in which Conti maps the conceptual and normative geography of this theory and its pervasive concern with the nation’s parts has important implications for how contemporary democratic theorists might think about representation, partisanship, and the relationship between the two. Until the late twentieth century, two assumptions dominated mainstream accounts of representative democracy. First, it was believed that elections constituted the alpha and the omega of citizens’ popular sovereignty—that is, the means through which they periodically choose their representatives as well as the end of an act of authorization through which they routinely delegate their power. Second, it was assumed that party politics was a necessary, but troubling, even pathological, feature of present-day democracies.


Pervasively dominated by Rawlsian and Habermasian notions of reasoned public consensus, late 1990s-early 2000s democratic theory envisioned various correctives (deliberative pools, citizens’ juries, mini-publics) to enhance the conditions for enlightened deliberation. However, over the past fifteen years, political theorists have crafted new accounts of the normative stand of both representative and party politics. Nadia Urbinati has articulated a vision of representative democracy as a diarchy of will and opinion wherein political representation becomes a process, rather than an act, extending well beyond the electoral mandate. In this continuum of authorization and contestation, popular sovereignty turns into a never-ending dialectics between society and institutions that makes citizens, rather than electors, the prime movers of representative democracy. Similarly, Nancy Rosenblum has pioneered a defense of ethical partisanship revolving around three main principles: inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and disposition to compromise. Driving her argument is the emphasis on the poietic, not simply mimetic, function of political parties as vehicles for collective political agency that create and recreate, not just mirror, interests and opinions in a process constantly renegotiating lines of division.


If we agree with David Runciman that a theory of “political” representation needs a conception of long-term partisanship to be convincing and a theory of partisanship needs some account of political representation to be complete, what resources can we draw from Conti’s work to productively reconnect the two? Do mid- and late-Victorian fears about the dominance of party elites resemble the concerns with the pathologies of party politics that are so pervasive in our present? Did the eclipse of the “mirroring Parliament” give rise to a vision of parties as organizations and institutions that produce, rather than simply mirror, claims and cleavages? Did the various advocates of descriptive representation somehow foresee the need to go beyond a purely electoral rendering of representative politics and make the principle of popular sovereignty more than a fleeting moment in the political life of the nation?


Once we realize that elections make representatives, not representation, and that partisanship is the political identity par excellence of democratic citizens, these questions provide a mirror to better visualize the (dis)continuities between our past—the democratization of representative government and the rise of parties—and our troubled present.



Photo by Eric Eastman, via Unsplash.


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