Informal Political Representation

Part of the IDEA research seminar series

Speaker: Wendy Salkin (Stanford)

Descriptive and Nondescriptive Informal Political Representation 

A descriptive representative is a party who is similar to those they represent in at least one of a variety of respects. The descriptive representative may have characteristics, experiences, or backgrounds in common with the group they represented. Sometimes, the descriptive representative will also be a member of the same social or affinity group as those they represent, although that need not be so. 
Descriptive representation is widely regarded as having much to recommend it, particularly when those who are to be represented have systematically had their shared interests overlooked. We may characterize the favor that descriptive representation enjoys in terms of a principle that, at least on first glance, seems intuitively plausible: 
Descriptive preference: For a given context of representation, other things being equal, there is good reason to prefer group representation by descriptive representatives to group representation by those who are not descriptive representatives (nondescriptive representatives). 
The descriptive preference principle strikes many as an attractive principle and seems to be motivated by commitments that, in our everyday lives, we quite reasonably endorse. It captures the spirit, if not the meaning, of the widespread and popular directive, “Let the people speak for themselves!” 
Representation theorists and others have defended versions of this principle, particularly as it applies to formal political representatives (those chosen by means of systematized election or selection procedures), on various grounds, including that descriptive representatives (1) are epistemically better situated to represent a group than a nondescriptive representative would be (understanding arguments), (2) are more likely to be regarded by audiences as credible sources of information about the group than a nondescriptive representative would be (credibility arguments), and (3) can advance a group’s self-determination in ways that nondescriptive representatives cannot (self-determination arguments). If these arguments are compelling, they may support a general preference for descriptive representatives. 
How compelling should we find these arguments, particularly as applied to informal political representatives (those who represent groups although not chosen to do so by means of systematized election or selection procedures)? That is the motivating question for this talk. I approach the question in two ways. First, I critically examine arguments commonly made in favor of the descriptive preference principle. It is not my aim to reject or undermine support for the descriptive preference principle, which has much to be said in its favor. Rather, my aim is to deepen our understanding of the appeal of this principle while putting pressure on us to better understand its hidden commitments and limitations. Second, I approach the question in a different manner: I consider whether there are ever compelling reasons to allow for or even to prefer informal political representation by parties who are not descriptive representatives (call these nondescriptive informal political representatives). I argue that there are. 
This talk draws on arguments I advance in Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book, Speaking for Others: The Ethics of Informal Political Representation, available from Harvard University Press on July 7, 2024. 

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