It is easy to identify an existent and increasing disjunction between representation based on territorial constituencies and the preferences of citizens that, many times, are not circumscribed by any territory. In practice, such a fact leads to a representation deficit, where elected representatives fail to represent – or even to contemplate – preferences of constituents. In that case, preferences that are dispersed and not contained within a territory have little or no chance of being formally represented. The history of recurrent legislative redistricting ( and gerrymandering) in the U.S is the most visible and institutional acknowledgement of difficulties related to territorial representation.
Such difficulties related to territorial representation tend to become even more present in a context of an interconnected society, where a growing number of old and new interests that were once latent and isolated, become expressed with much more intensity and well beyond geographical limits. Among other reasons, the aggregative possibility that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have given to interests that were previously dispersed renders the gap between constituents’ preferences and the policy outputs of legislatures even more evident.
The bad news is, in such a context, standard solutions such as redefinition of territorial constituencies as a means to deal with the limitations of territorial representation are no longer an option. Moreover, even if some interests can still be represented through territorial constituencies, it is increasingly difficult to claim primacy of territory-based preferences over non-territorial interests. In short, liberal democracy’s fixation with territorial representation – together with partisan competition – as the only provider of legitimate links between citizens and public authorities is significantly challenged.
Despite the obvious signs of fatigue from liberal democracy (decreasing levels of turnouts, partisanship affiliation) there is also a noticeable renewal of politics (e.g. activist groups, single-issue coalitions) that are by no means seized by the traditional framework of liberal democracies. Even if nonterritorial interests are not new to democratic theorists, undoubtedly one can identify the rise of organized interests propelled by the use of ICTs and particularly the Internet, has taken an impressive step –both quantitatively and qualitatively – from the mid 1990s on.
Interesting is to notice that recent researches show that through the use of ICTs – particularly weblogs – MPs are increasingly relating with “e-constituencies” that come well beyond their territorial limits. A research by Nigel Jackson, for instance, suggests that MPs that are using weblogs tend to develop broader, virtual constituencies that are highly interested in politics and that are in competition with the geographic constituency of these MPs who are not and cannot be elected by these “e-constituents”. Such a fact, rather than anecdotal, illustrates well the limits of territorial constituencies. While it stops citizens preferences from being aggregated around one representative, it also inhibits representatives from acting on behalf of an electorate that maybe has more affinity with his preferences than those of his territorial constituency.
One fact is evident and inevitable: the ever growing access to ICTs challenges current representative democratic practices and traditional forms of political participation, with new non-territorial citizen networks, fluid publics and affinity groups constituting major elements of contemporary democracy. Can ideational e-constituencies complement the system of territorial constituencies as we know it? Maybe not for now, but it is something to think about.