Politics and Geography
By Crispin Sartwell
There’s recently been a revival of an argument that goes back to the 18th century: that the form of government prescribed by the Constitution gives more representation to rural than to urban people, and to people from relatively sparsely-populated states than to people from populous ones. The clinching demonstrations of this are the composition of the Senate and, less extremely, the electoral college. Now, everyone takes the position on this matter that would help their own side get elected. Nevertheless, the question does show something fundamental about the nature of political representation.
The political reasons for the phenomenon are familiar from your history textbook: the US originates as an alliance among independent states. The less populous states were concerned that their voices and interests would be drowned out or swamped by those of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York; they had to be cajoled into the nation. Similar assurances about representation were required, for example, by smaller nations in constituting the European Union, and the United Nations pays lip service at least to a principle of equal sovereignty among nation-states, not representation in proportion to population. It had to start there if it expected smaller nations to join.
Most of us do not, any longer, think of the US as an alliance of independent nations; we consider the United States a single political unit in some sense. Under that presumption, and as an abstract matter in democratic political theory (which is liable to start with a principle of equal representation or one person/one vote), it is hard to argue that the 600,000 or so people of Wyoming should have the same representation in the Senate as Florida’s 20,000,000.
But whatever the theoretical and practical drawbacks of the system as it stands, it also shows some of the real complexities and some of the possibilities for beauty or profundity that lurk within the practices of political representation. The neutral, abstract scheme of one person/one vote yields a kind of minimalist or hyper-simplified picture, but the concrete practices of political representation on the ground are variegated, swirling, showing many relations of human beings to one another and to other bits or dimensions of the world.
In almost any real democratic system, the space or geography of the nation is represented to some extent as well as its human population. This is striking, in that it suggests that, in representative politics, the physical configuration of a country as well as its people is the subject represented: what the picture is a picture of, as a portrait represents the person who sat for it or a still-life painting a bowl of fruit. A democracy in some sense represents the place in which it is located as well as people it encompasses as citizens. In addition to being a portrait of the people, that is, a representative system is a sort of landscape painting or topographical map of the terrain it operates within.
The spaces that Florida and Wyoming occupy in the Senate chamber correlates better to their relative physical size than to their relative population, and in general the Senate comes closer than the House, for example, to resembling the sweep of the nation across the vast central plains and mountain west that has been central to the national narrative. Obviously, this doesn’t work so well for Delaware, but the point is that the different principles on which different branches and levels of government are selected ends up yielding a remarkably complex depiction of a nation.
Any representative democracy and indeed almost any political system is obliged to represent geographies as well as populations. Geography, after all, accounts to some extent for the distribution of populations in the first place. But any political situation or system of any size coordinates smaller units: provinces, counties, townships, and so on, and reflects to some extent the physical environment it occupies.
Indeed, when we think about America, we do not think of it only, or even primarily, as a group of people, but as a physical terrain (purple mountains and fruited planes, sea to shining sea, and so on). We might think of it, as well, in terms of located sub-cultures: Latino culture in southern Texas, peoples meeting in New Orleans at the mouth of Mississippi, Appalachia, and a hundred others. The principle of one person/one vote irrigates all the deserts, flattens all the mountains, and bridges all the rivers, but even the attempt to apply the principle with perfect neutrality ends up connecting to the highly differentiated landscape and acknowledging the connections of the people to it.
Every political system represents the space it occupies as well as the people occupying that space, and represents them as inseparable. We may want to ameliorate specific political inequalities that this generates, but I think it is more something we should try to become conscious of and even celebrate than something we should seek to expunge.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. His most recent book is Entanglements: A System of Philosophy (SUNY 2017).