Let me vote in your country, and I’ll let you vote in mine. A proposal for transnational democracy

Reciprocal Representation of the Unaffected?

By Michael L. Frazer (University of East Anglia)


It is entirely possible for similar political institutions to serve very different purposes. An institutional reform which was originally suggested for one set of reasons may therefore be adopted for entirely different ones.

The provocative institutional change suggested by Joachim Blatter in this forum, which I will follow Eva Erman in calling “reciprocal representation,” is defended by Blatter and his predecessors as a means to include more of those outside a nation-state who are affected by a nation’s policies in the formulation of those policies. Previously, I have suggested a similar set of institutions to perform a very different function—to empower those who are unaffected by a nation’s policies, allowing them to serve as impartial arbitrators and to solve problems in ways that may be unavailable when only those affected are included (Frazer 2014). I will argue here that reciprocal representation is better suited to serve this latter purpose than it is to serve the former.

Blatter is surely correct that, in our age of ever-increasing global interconnectedness, it is incumbent upon us to “avoid the Scylla of technocratic intergovernmentalism and the Charybdis of populist nationalism,” and that the only way to do so is with some form of democratic internationalism. Political philosophers have defended this as a corollary of “the all-affected principle,” the democratic commitment to the inclusion of all those affected by a given political decision in the relevant decision-making process (see Näsström 2011).

Several commentators have already raised the question of whether Blatter’s specific institutional recommendation is the best way to achieve the democratic internationalism we require. Together, they make a convincing case that international democracy would be best achieved by strengthening existing transnationally representative institutions like the European Parliament instead of by adding transnationally reciprocal “consociated” representation to national representative institutions as Blatter advocates.

Blatter opens himself up to this criticism by tying his proposal so tightly to the all-affected principle, advocating reciprocal representation if and only if two or more nation-states regularly affect each other’s citizens. After states sign a “joint declaration of interdependence,” citizens then sign “declarations of interest and identification” in which, among other things, “they declare that they have a legitimate interest in participating in the will-formation and decision-making processes of the consociated state because they are subjected to the joint regulations and/or systematically affected by the policies of the other state.” When states and their citizens are acknowledged to be so tightly interdependent, conditions are ripe for the creation of a single transnationally representative institution like the EP as a unified, permanent forum for decision-making in relevant areas of policy.

Among its other advantages, the European Parliament allows us to uphold the central democratic principle of the equal political status of all individuals, as Anna Meine and Antoinette Scherz complain that Blatter does not. By creating a transnational institution with certain limited powers, rather than by adding a class of second-class semi-citizens with only limited rights and responsibilities, power is shared between national and transnational agents without creating multiple, unequal levels of political rights for individuals.

Meine is particularly concerned that the role, if any, of consociated representatives is decided on a case by case basis depending on who is affected by the specific issue under consideration. Blatter insists that every time consociated representatives participate in decision-making they “have to justify their demand by highlighting how their constituency will be subjected to or affected by the decision.” Blatter seems to interpret the all-affected principle as, in Robert Goodin’s words, an “all and only affected interests principle” (Goodin 2007, pp. 56-59). Whenever those unaffected by a decision participate in making it, Blatter seems to believe that democratic legitimacy is threatened.

Yet even among those who interpret the all-affected principle as the all-and-only-affected principle, few try to apply the principle in as fine-grained a manner as Blatter does. Robert Dahl, for example, says that a claim to inclusion in a political unit “cannot be justified if it is advanced by persons whose interests are not significantly affected by the decisions of that unit” (Dahl 1989, p. 208).

Once they have established a moral claim to membership in a given demos as a result of being significantly affected by its decisions, voters and their representatives in Dahl’s system have a right to contribute to its decisions on all matters, even those that will never affect them in any way. This is how suffrage works in virtually all existing democratic institutions. School policy is partially set by those without children, meat safety standards by vegetarians, and so on.

The larger and more diverse a democracy is, the more likely it is that a significant percentage of the decisions that my representatives make in my name will be about matters that do not affect me. For those with a strong commitment to the all-and-only-affected principle, this might be a reason to insist on small, homogenous states, or perhaps a highly federalized constitution that keeps as much power on as local level as possible. While there is a long tradition insisting that democracy works best on such a small scale, there is a counter-tradition, with its roots in the work of American founders like James Madison, which sees the size and diversity of large democracies as a decided advantage. Widening the sphere of political deliberation to include many who are unaffected by a given decision, in this tradition, helps cool the passionate factionalism of those directly affected.

This is why it is so valuable to include those unaffected by a given political decision in the decision-making process. Unlike those affected by a decision, the unaffected have no right to participate on democratic grounds. They may, however, nonetheless improve the quality of the decision being made, most notably through the introduction of their naturally impartial perspective on the matter. Rather than a means of empowering foreigners affected by a representative institution’s decisions, a version of reciprocal representation could be a means to introduce the perspective of the unaffected into that institution’s deliberations.

Committed democrats, of course, are not only concerned about the quality of political decision-making; they are also rightly concerned about its legitimacy. For Dahl, to empower unaffected outsiders in making a polity’s binding political decisions would be to abandon popular sovereignty for an illegitimate form of Platonic guardianship (Dahl 1989, p. 151). This is why it is so important to emphasize the reciprocity in reciprocal representation. Unlike the equal citizens in an Aristotelian polis, Platonic guardians only rule, and are never ruled in turn. The same would be true if representatives of the unaffected were to make political decisions for others without agreeing to have others do the same for them. This would essentially be a form of colonialism, denying self-rule to others while claiming it for oneself.

The unique moral legitimacy of democracy is grounded in our commitment to the principle that all must equally rule and be ruled in turn. This principle is usually interpreted to require that all who are affected by a set of laws and policies must have equal power over their formulation; one of the reasons that Blatter’s proposal for a kind of semi-citizenship strikes many as unacceptable is because it violates this usual interpretation of political equality. A different instantiation of equality, however, could involve all of us agreeing to bind ourselves to laws created, at least in part, by unaffected outsiders, while at the same time playing an equal role in political decisions that do not affect us. As Blatter observes, the reciprocity required can be specific and bilateral—that is, a direct trade of representatives between two states—or diffuse and multilateral, involving complex networks spanning many states. As long as all the exchanges of representatives are carried out by mutual consent, and as long as (as Beckman puts it) the powers surrendered are equal to the powers granted, then including the unaffected is fully compatible with democratic legitimacy.

The main reason to include the unaffected in this way is because our current global crisis is not merely a crisis of democratic legitimacy. As technocratic intergovernmentalists face increasingly resentful populist nationalists, we are also in a crisis of ever-increasing polarization. Citizens of many developed countries are feeling increasingly alienated from their fellow-nationals, seeing themselves as warring camps living in different moral and epistemic universes. Inviting impartial, unaffected arbitrators to intervene in domestic politics is one promising way to help bridge these seemingly insurmountable divides.

Of course, using reciprocal representation to provide impartial arbitration of domestic disputes would look rather different than using it to increase the democratic legitimacy of national policies with transnational effects. Blatter’s proposal emphasizes the need for exchanges of representatives within Europe, since so much of what European nations do affects one another. My proposal would instead suggest exchanges between European nations and those distant others least affected by intra-European affairs. Not only could arbitrators from outside Europe help bring an impartial perspective to problems within it, but, given Europe’s imperialist history of meddling in the affairs of others, it is a matter of basic reciprocity that Europe now be ruled in turn. As I am writing, the UK is tearing itself apart over its border with the Republic of Ireland. Prudence and justice alike suggest that Indians and Pakistanis may be the ones who should, at least in part, have their turn to draw lines on someone else’s map.



Dahl, Robert A. 1989. Democracy and its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Frazer, Michael. 2014. “Including the Unaffected,” Journal of Political Philosophy 22, 377-395.

Goodin, Robert E. 2007. “Enfranchising All Affected Interests and Its Alternatives,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 35, 40-68

Näsström, Sofia. 2011. “The Challenge of the All-Affected Principle,” Political Studies 59, 116-134.