Pieter de Wilde

When we think about political representation, we tend to think about our elected politicians. Do they reflect the society they are supposed to represent? Do parliaments and governments reflect the gender, age and ethnic balance of our societies? We also think of the policies and decisions these elected officials make. Do they act in the way we want them to act? Are politicians making policies in accordance with public opinion? Rarely do we think about people we haven’t had a chance to vote for. We tend not to think of people who never ran for office and we tend not to think of foreigners. 

Adapted from an article in Political Studies.

When we think about political representation, we tend to think about our elected politicians. Do they reflect the society they are supposed to represent? Do parliaments and governments reflect the gender, age and ethnic balance of our societies? We also think of the policies and decisions these elected officials make. Do they act in the way we want them to act? Are politicians making policies in accordance with public opinion? Rarely do we think about people we haven’t had a chance to vote for. We tend not to think of people who never ran for office and we tend not to think of foreigners.

And yet, there are a lot of people and institutions who say they stand for certain people and causes. From Greta Thunberg claiming to represent “young people who share my concerns about an ecological breakdown and climate crisis”, to Anders Behring Breivik who claimed: “I stand here today as representative of the Norwegian and European resistance movement.”, to Mixiana Laba claiming to represent the “mentally challenged in our city of Pointe Noire”, to Sadiqa Reynolds who claims she “represent[s] black women, who can take no comfort in silence”. Many of these self-proclaimed representatives have never been elected. There are men who campaign for women’s issues and foreigners who say they champion our domestic causes. Is that also political representation?

Michael Saward argues that we need to start thinking about representation as the practice of making representative claims, and the response to those claims. In contrast to the classic way of thinking about political representation, that leads us to investigate who is making which kinds of claims and whether people consider themselves represented through such claims.

People may start to consider themselves as part of a group, part of a constituency, through such representative claims. Think for example about the identities of “Brexiters” and “Remainers”. To the extent EU-related identities existed before the 2016 referendum in the UK, they were fairly weak. Yet now, three years later, these identities are stronger to many British citizens than partisan identities. Public opinion that should be enacted into policy according to the classic idea of democracy, may also be shaped or steered through such claims. In short, thinking about representation as a dynamic process consisting of claims that receive responses from audiences rather than as the static result of elections, invites a whole line of thinking about the classic issue of political representation.

So far, the debate about representative claims is mostly contained to the field of political theory. See some important publications here, here and here. Few systematic, rigorous analyses of existing claims exist. In an article published in Political Studies, I provide one of those few analyses. It is a comprehensive overview of claims made about globalization-related issues like migration, climate change, European integration and international trade. In conjunction to the empirical analysis, the article makes an argument of considering the quality of individual claims in terms of the degree of information they provide about the intensions and world views of their maker. The more information provided, the better the audience can judge whether they agree or not, so goes the argument. This yields a Quality of Representation index. Subsequent empirical analysis shows that challengers of the current liberal world order systematically make better claims than the defenders of the status quo. Perhaps the quality of representative claims is a key piece of the puzzle behind the recent success of populist parties and other challengers of the liberal world order.

The research agenda opened up by thinking of representation as a dynamic process consisting of claims and feedback to those claims is still in its infancy. Much remains to be found out about the prevalence of such claims, why some people make them and others do not, and – most importantly – on their impact. Do people feel represented when they are exposed to such claims? Does that affect their opinion about politics and democracy in general? Consider this article merely an invitation to such further inquiry.