Philosophy Department Colloquium
Speaker: Sameer Bajaj (Warwick)
Title: "Democratic Mandates and the Ethics of Representation."
Democratic Mandates and the Ethics of Representation
A day after the Tories achieved a decisive victory in the December 2019 British general election, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that he had received a “huge great stonking mandate” to get Brexit done and implement his domestic policy agenda. Whether or not what Johnson received is appropriately described as huge, great, or stonking, his statement reflects a more general idea that has wide currency in conventional democratic thought—namely, that larger electoral victories give representatives greater mandates to govern. Despite its important role in the practice of democratic politics, democratic theorists have paid little attention to the questions of whether larger electoral victories actually give representatives greater mandates to govern and, if so, what the moral implications of having a greater or lesser mandate are. My aim in this essay is to answer these questions and, in doing so, lay the groundwork for a normative theory of democratic mandates. I suggest that the key to answering the questions lies in understanding the relationship between two functions of democratic votes. Votes have a metaphysical function: they authorise representatives to govern. And votes have an expressive function: they express attitudes about the representatives they authorise. I defend what I call the dependence thesis: the content, size, and moral implications of a representative’s mandate depend on the attitudes expressed by the votes that generate the mandate. I then argue that, given certain ineliminable features of large-scale democratic politics, real-world democratic representatives are rarely in a position to justifiably claim greater mandates based on the size of their electoral victories.