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Representation Rethought: On Trustees, Delegates, and Gyroscopes in the Study of Political Representation and Democracy


The trustee/delegate problem purportedly expresses how closely a representative's votes in the legislature should correspond to their constituents' preferences. In this article, I argue that the usual formulation of this debate collapses three distinctions—aims, source of judgment, and responsiveness—and thus obscures the underlying complexity of the phenomenon. Given its tripartite formulation, the collapse of these distinctions into a binary “trustee/delegate” formulation obscures a more complex political landscape with eight—rather than two—ideal types. Furthermore, once unpacked, we can see that the distinctions operate entirely independent of the location of authority, leading to the seemingly paradoxical instructed trustees and independent delegates. I also claim that the three distinctions apply to any decision maker, and thus, the attribution of this problem as distinctive of democratic political representation is an important overstatement. The article thus contributes to a more general theory of political representation that can be applied in nonelectoral and nondemocratic contexts increasingly relevant to global politics.

Corresponding author
Andrew Rehfeld is Associate Professor of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 (
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Suzanne Dovi . 2007. The Good Representative. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Francis Lovett . 2004. “Can Justice Be Based on Consent.” Journal of Political Philosophy 12 (March): 79101.

Andrew Rehfeld . 2006. “Toward a General Theory of Political Representation.” The Journal of Politics 68 (February): 121.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau . [1762] 1978. On the Social Contract. ed. Roger D. Masters . Trans. Judith R. Masters . New York: St. Mary's.

Adrian Vermeule . 2007. Mechanisms of Democracy: Institutional Design Writ Small. New York: Oxford University Press.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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