Virtually all Americans who have passed through the United States’ school system know that the concept of “taxation without representation” was the spark that ignited the American Revolution.
That concern was quite alien to the traditions of the British Parliament, however. In 18th century Great Britain, anyone elected to the House of Commons did not act as a representative of the interests of their constituency, but of those of the empire as a whole.
This was called “virtual representation,” and the idea was that all would be equally served by prioritizing the concerns of the whole. American colonists, however, quickly realized this put them at a significant disadvantage in light of the enormous gulf that separated their interests from those of their legislators far away in England.
In 1774, James Wilson published a pamphlet in Philadelphia entitled “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” In it, he wrote,
“The representatives are reminded whose creatures they are; and to whom they are accountable for the use of that power, which is delegated unto them. The first maxims of jurisprudence are ever kept in view — that all power is derived from the people — that their happiness is the end of government.”
In his 1776 “Thoughts on Government,” John Adams wrote regarding the soon-to-be-constituted legislature that,
"It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this Assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should have equal interest in it."
This reasoning is the beating heart of the American experiment, but Utah’s Legislature doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. Our Legislature’s demographics are wildly out of sync with the state’s. Men represent 50% of the population, but make up 77% of the Legislature. Latter-day Saints constitute 62% of the population, but 88% of the Legislature. Hispanics and Latinos constitute 13% of the population, but only 4% of the legislature.
On top of that, with last year’s manipulations of propositions 2 and 3, and last month’s regressive tax restructuring revisions, the Legislature has repeatedly sent the message that they feel they serve at their own pleasure, and not ours.
Our leadership has suggested we’re not well-enough informed to make decisions about things as complex as health care and taxes. They’ve snapped that we cannot “overrule the laws of mathematics.” They’ve argued that we don’t understand our own interests. They’ve prioritized the interests of their legislative leaders and the large industries and corporations that fill their campaign coffers.
What the vast majority of lawmakers have failed to do with these issues is seek our will and then find ways to legislate accordingly. We have representatives, but not representation. The heart of the American experiment beats two sizes too small in the Utah Capitol.
Much of this is on us, however, as we are the ones who put them in power, and no doubt many feel confident that the petty tribalism with which we tend to distract ourselves will shield them from electoral consequences.
We have a remedy for our unique brand of “virtual representation,” however. This coming November will give us all an opportunity to remind our legislators “whose creatures they are,” and to constitute a Legislature that is not a reflection of our most privileged and powerful few, but an “exact portrait” of our people. Let us make our voices heard.
Dan McClellan is a husband to Aleen and a father to three precocious girls. He is a doctoral candidate in religion at the University of Exeter, and he works as a scripture translation supervisor for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as an adjunct instructor of ancient scripture for Brigham Young University.