What is true political representation? Is representative democracy failing us?

What is political representation?

There are many definitions of political representation, each highlight different aspects of representation. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hanna Pitkin’s definition is used as a starting point. It reads:

“Political representation is the activity of making citizens’ voices, opinions, and perspectives “present” in the public policy making processes.”

I will use this definition as a starting point as well. In the context of my blog, I will be focusing on political representation in civil society, institutional politics, policy-making and other formal political avenues. This definition highlights the role of political representation in the inclusion of “citizens’ voices” in policy making processes. In the United States, we have a representative democracy, which means that citizens elect people to represent their interests in at their state houses, in Congress, as President etc. Urbani points out that in this system, it is important to problematize the “citizens’ ‘opportunity’ ‘to practice direct democracy'”. Most citizens are able to vote, and represent elected officials. However, the pool citizens have to chose from are often quite limited in terms of diversity.

In 2015:

  • Women make up 19.4% of Congress.
  • Women of color make up 6.2% of Congress.
  • LGBTQ people make up 1.4% of Congress.

The demographic break up of Congresspeople does not “represent” or reflect the demographic break up of the United State. When we consider this idea of “representation”, however, we are not talking about Pitkin’s definition. We are discussing a definition of representation that echoes Ella Shohat’s definition of representation. Her definition, which is wider in scope, in that it discusses representation in popular culture, states:

“The denial of aesthetic representation to the subaltern has historically formed a corollary to the literal denial of economic, legal, and political representation. The struggle to ‘speak for oneself’ cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard.”

This definition calls into question power dynamics as they relate to representation. Shohat points out that the voices that are not “represented” or “heard” are often spoken for, and have histories of not being listened to. When thinking about women, people of color, LGBT people and other politically marginalized people, the history of being silenced, spoken for and ignored is evident. People of Color, women and people who were not land-owners got had to fight for suffrage much longer than the rich, land owning White men who declared that in the United States, all “men were created equal” (with an emphasis on men, not people). Suffrage rights have been extended to almost all citizens at this point in time, however, voter suppression, voter disenfranchisement and other ways of denying people (particularly, people of color) of their right to vote are prevalent today.

Taking both of these definitions into account, I believe that true representation calls for more than just elections. True representation calls for people of diverse identities holding office, making political decisions and being involved in the implementation of those policies. Due social processes which teach some they are more suited for office than others, and situations which favor the political ambition of some over others, something has to be done. People whose identities are marginalized need to be sought after as candidates, elected officials, as party leaders, as decision makers. That, will lead to representation that gives all people the “opportunity” to “practice direct democracy”.

Dovi, Suzanne, “Political Representation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/political-representation/&gt;.

Urbinati, Nadia. Representative Democracy : Principles And Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

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