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.

True Life: I ran for office because I’m a young Latina

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Me, with some of the women who inspired and supported me to go through with the campaign! I am so grateful for their support and the fact that they came out on Election Day!

My name is Regina and I am currently a student, living on American University’s main campus. This campus is in Ward 3 of the District of Columbia, and is represented by Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 3D. This past November, I ran and became the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for ANC 3D single-member district (SMD) 07. As Commissioner of ANC 3D 07 I represent constituents that live in Anderson, Centennial, Hughes, Cassell, Leonard, McDowell and (part of) Letts Halls on American University’s campus. In order to run, I had to file as a write-in candidate at the Board of Elections. Rory, who was the incumbent was graduating, and decided not to run. In fact, he invited any and all questions I had about being a commissioner, and what running entailed. My race was uncontested, I just had to have enough votes for the Board of Elections to consider my election legitimate. It was, and I was sworn-in to office in January, on the same day that the Mayor, Shadow Representatives and Council Members were sworn in. Standing on stage, being sworn in, and smiling at my mom who was taking pictures honor-roll style has been one of my proudest moments.

My campaign was unimpressive. I spent a grand total of $58 on campaign materials, which covered printing fliers at Staples. I spent about 30 hours handing out flyers, calling my friends which were registered to vote in DC, explaining that DC allows same-day voter’s registration to those interested, and standing at the voting sites explaining that I was running as a write-in candidate. A big part of campaigning, in my case, was explaining to students (who come from across the country), what an ANC was. As someone who has volunteered on several campaigns, I know how unremarkable my campaign sounds in the post Citizen’s United political climate. In my case, becoming a Commissioner was not difficult. Yet, it felt terrifying to decide to run, announce it, and call on my peers to vote for me. The fact that I had so many friends and mentors support me and campaign with me on election day made it easier. The truth is, it was a BIG DEAL.

The idea of announcing that I wanted to run for office, even one with a primarily advisory role, felt arrogant. It was uncomfortable for me to bring it up, or post it on social media without feeling like I had to prove that I was qualified, was running for the right reasons and knew exactly what holding the office would entail. The truth is, I met all the legal qualifications for running. I tried to learn as much as possible about the roles of ANCs and how they fit into the history of DC. I learned as much as possible about the office, the people serving on the commission and the commitments I would have to make if elected. The reasons why I wanted to run were a little harder for me to articulate. As someone who likes to study identity politics and the politics of representation, I wanted to run, because of who I am. I wanted to run because I am a young, Latina, student. People who share my identities are underrepresented in almost all forms of government across the United States. My ANC is part in the wealthiest ward, in one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. People of color, young people, and students are underrepresented at a local level, in MY neighborhood. I saw running as an opportunity to get involved in my community, to sit at the table with representatives from neighborhoods immediately adjacent to mine, and discuss issues that affect us all. I could never speak on behalf of everyone who lives in my SMD, but I believe that as a Commissioner, I am able to represent the student perspective which often gets ignored by DC local government. Students come and go, few register as voters in DC or make DC their place of permanent residence. However, there are over 16 colleges and universities in DC and many students reside in the district. Students often live, intern, work, spend money, babysit, park and pay taxes in the District just like non-student neighbors. The ANC seat I was running for was going to be left open, unless someone ran. After asking around to see if anyone had made arrangements to run, I realized no one had made concrete plans to. I decided to run, because I saw it as stepping up to the responsibility and privilege of representing the interests of students like me, who have made homes for themselves in DC.

On a more personal level, I ran because I kept catching myself trying to find others to run for the seat so I wouldn’t feel the need to. I ran because I have studied the effects of the gendered political ambition gap. I ran because as Girls Just Wanna Not Run points out, “young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office”. Asking people to vote for me was uncomfortable. I know that part of that was the fact that I did not have experience asking people to vote for me, but I couldn’t ignore the gendered nature of that discomfort. I felt arrogant asking for the support of people who knew me, didn’t question my intentions and were excited for me. I felt like I had to justify my desire to run even though I was not being challenged. On a cognitive level, it is easy to understand that the way women are socialized works against them being self-promoting (being confident asserting their expertise), getting involved in politics (which is male dominated) and demanding credit for serving others (which women are expected to do). It was harder for me to understand how these forces played out in my own life, despite the fact that I could understand them abstractly.

Feminism: Self Reflection is for Everybody

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As a Gender and Sexuality Studies major, I can’t help but to run with circles that praise Bell Hook’s book, Feminism is for Everybody. This summer, I have a little more time on my hands than I normally do, so I have decided to read it in order to further my personal, feminist education. The truth is, as a feminist Latina, I found it incredibly refreshing to read a book about feminism by a woman of color, a woman who took acknowledged and discussed the struggles some women face, within the movement. In my discussion of feminism with people of varying ages, education levels, and across the gender and political spectrum, I have often heard people who try to divorce classism, racism, and ability from issues of feminism. The more I have become personally entrenched in the movement, I have discovered that the truth is, as Audre Lorde puts it:

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

The personal, is political. The contingencies I face due to my identity are no more or less important than those of others. Inequality is a universal issue, and in some form, structural violence affects us all. Privilege plays a role in determining how much or how little obstacles we face in different settings, and I really appreciated the discussion of classism and racism within the feminist movement because some of the other feminist writings I have read have come from women who were white and middle class and were fortunate enough to not become marginalized within the feminist movement (at least not because of class and race).

Feminism: Self Reflection is for Everybody

In the “Consciousness Raising” chapter, hooks reflected on the idea of internalized patriarchal forces as they pertain to women. One particular quote stuck out to me:

“Without confronting internalized sexism women who picked up the feminist banner often betrayed the cause in their interactions with other women.”

This quote to me, made me more critical of my own sexist views. When I started thinking about where this discomfort stemmed from, the first thing that I looked back at, was my childhood. I am Latina, my entire family always supported me in all that I did, however patriarchal values seemed ever-present in our family gatherings (the women did domestic work, men sat at the head of the table, as the eldest granddaughter I was/am expected to serve my Abuelo his dinner when we eat with our extended family on Sunday nights, etc.) Beyond that, I’ve grown up in the United States, which remains a patriarchal society and whose media reinforces the treatment of women as “different” and “lesser” than men by dehumanizing, sexualizing and perpetuating negative stereotypes about them. That is what made me start thinking about my own actions, and how I inadvertently perpetuate the patriarchy through my sexist behavior. After all, complicity within patriarchal systems is just as harmful as the perpetuation of it through direct action!

Self-Reflection

Here’s a list of things I do (which inadvertently reinforce oppressive social structures), and reflected on why I should not partake in these behaviors:

Tying my worth to what I eat.

At first, it seems obvious that we should not tie our value to what/how/when we eat, however way too often I’ve heard and have said I was “good” because I ate healthfully all day or “bad” because I indulged in junk food. Saying those things offhandedly is harmful however, it helps to internalize the idea that what and how we eat makes us better, or worse people; when in fact, what we really mean is that it makes us better/worse at conforming to very narrow, patriarchal views of beauty.

Forgetting to ask people for their preferred pronouns.

As a feminine, cisgender woman, the way I choose to look, act and dress is stereotypical of the gender roles women are expected to fulfill. The fact that people always correctly assume my preferred gender pronouns makes me privileged. I have never been made uncomfortable by having someone use incorrect pronouns when referring to me. This privilege makes it easy for me to forget to ask other people for their pronouns, instead of assuming them. In order to become a better feminist, I must make the spaces I inhabit safe and welcoming to people of all gender identities- after all, gender equality is the goal!

Taking the gender binary for granted.

Working under the assumption that a gender binary exists, gender is discussed in terms of either male or female, which is limiting. Most writings or conversations work under this assumption by default, however the concept of the gender binary discounts people who are intersex, transgender, androgynous, gender fluid or of other identities that do not fall within the binary. The fact that this might feel like the “default”, to me and others, is a result of power dynamics and privilege that favor people who identify as either male or female.  However, in order to become a better feminist, I must do a better job of acknowledging the privileged and oppressive nature of taking this binary for granted and challenge myself to think, speak and discuss gender as a fluid spectrum (with infinite, possibilities) rather than a binary (with a mere two options.)

Getting particularly jealous of other women.

One of the most anti-feminist things I’ve ever done is compare myself to other women, or vie for the attention of men and consider other women as competitors for their attention. The fact is, that jealousy might be human, however only competing against other women for promotions, dates, compliments etc. undermines any sisterhood that may have developed between myself and the other women I interact with. This jealousy also works under the assumption that I do not or cannot compete with men or anyone who identifies as anything other than male or female. The truth is, instead of becoming jealous for the accomplishments of another woman, whether personal, professional or otherwise, I should do the feminist sisterhood justice by being happy for her and considering her accomplishment as one for all women.

In what ways do you inadvertently perpetuate sexism? How can you become a better feminist and activist? Let me know!