Why We Need to Return to the Ethics of Political Representation

Why We Need to Return to the Ethics of Political Representation

by Eline SeversVrije Universiteit Brussel, and Suzanne DoviUniversity of Arizona

The survival or breakdown of democracies importantly depends on the beliefs and actions of our representatives. For democracies’ representatives cannot only suspend the Constitution, arrest the opposition, restrict the activities of the media, and rig elections; they also can bolster political extremists, determine how “competitive” elections are gerrymandered, mobilize xenophobic and racist populism, and degrade civil and political liberties. Even the refusal to denounce racist, fascist, and xenophobic groups can strengthen groups actively opposed to democratic institutions. Through their words, gestures, and even silences, representatives can construct the political identities of democratic citizens in hatred-filled and democratically divisive ways.1 The performative function of representatives can undermine “the political realm as a distinct sphere of equals” (Thaa 2016). Even more devastating to the legitimacy of democratic governance, albeit perhaps less obviously, representatives simply can prioritize popular policies over democratic norms and commitments. They can destroy democratic institutions while allegedly acting in the name of “the people.” Bluntly stated, representatives can advance their careers by selling out democracies.

The rise of populist and xenophobic politics illustrates why it is crucial to have good representatives—that is, good democraticrepresentatives. In The Good Representative, Dovi (2007) offered three criteria for identifying those actors who represent democratically: good democratic representatives are fair-minded, build critical trust, and are good gatekeepers. Good representatives should be evaluated by the impact of their activities on democratic institutions. This symposium updates that understanding of good democratic representation in light of recent advancements in the empirical and theoretical literature. The question of good representation is not simply theoretical. Rather, the complexities and uncertainties facing democratic citizens point to the need to recognize and empirically investigate how representatives violate and advance important democratic norms.

The symposium specifically attends to the principle of political equality. A major theme of this symposium is how representation helps and harms those who are intersectionally marginalized and vulnerable. By bringing together political theorists and empirical political scientists, it explores how normative understandings can illuminate empirical analysis and how empirical findings should inform normative assessments. As the articles show, such an encounter between theoretical and empirical analysis is not only fruitful, but it also significantly shifts how we think about and investigate good representation.

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PS: Political Science & Politics / Volume 51 / Issue 2 / April 2018