On Representation and Representative Democracy

Weekly Article
Flickr Creative Commons/Richard Ricciardi
March 9, 2017

“Does my identity mean I cannot speak for women who do not look or live like me?”

This is the question that I asked the audience at the 2016 Barnard Commencement. When Barnard announced that I would be the commencement speaker back in February 2016, protests ensued. A group of students and faculty wrote to Barnard President Debora Spar arguing that novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whom I was honored to stand beside as a fellow recipient of the Barnard Medal (the College’s equivalent of an honorary degree), would have been a better choice as Commencement speaker. As one signatory to a campus petition wrote, “I would prefer my commencement speaker to be someone who preaches a feminism like mine—one that is intersectional and inclusive to its core.”

I chose to address this controversy, which I regard as a completely legitimate set of questions to raise, in my actual speech. The audience was not shy. When I asked the core question in the first line above, one student in the audience yelled out, “No!” Based on the reactions I got after my speech, as well as views expressed in ongoing debates on this subject, many women – particularly younger women – agree.

This debate is important and necessary. We all have a stake in it, because we all face situations in which people who do not look or live like us claim to represent us. Under President Trump, for instance, the White House has once again become very white and very male. As a woman, I look at all the pictures of people who do not look like me in cabinet photos or clustered around the President’s desk and feel that some fundamental part of our democracy is badly broken.

I imagine that as a woman of color I would feel doubly unrepresented, just as I would if I were a poor woman, or a gay, bi, or trans woman. And of course I might hold three or four of those identities at once. That is what intersectionality means. But does intersectionality allow for the possibility that I can imagine what any of those other women think or feel? Rachelle Hampton argues persuasively that it is the duty of women who sit at the crossroads of race and class to hold to account women who do not—to hold them to account for injustice beyond gender injustice.

But who can represent whom?

We live in a representative democracy. Deep in the high school or college recesses of my mind is a dim memory about Edmund Burke and theories of representation. A quick trip to the Internet sharpens my recollection of delegate versus trustee models of representation, whereby an elected representative is either the perfect agent or delegate of her constituents, bound to vote on every issue as a majority of them would, or else a representative trusted by constituents to do what he thinks is the right thing to do, after deliberation, whether or not a majority of constituents agree.

In either case, of course, the representative must act on behalf of hundreds of thousands or indeed millions of people who vary from one another along many different axes. Even across political lines, we ultimately expect a member of Congress, a Senator, or a President, to represent an entire district, state, or nation, at least under some circumstances. And yet even the most intersectional representative imaginable would still not reflect the race, religion, ethnicity, class, gender orientation, or many other attributes of the totality of his constituents.

But then how to reconcile theories of representation with rationales for inclusion? On a Facebook Live discussion designed to celebrate International Women’s Day I argued with great conviction that businesses, and certainly governments, must try to represent as many diverse perspectives as possible to make the best decisions and do the best work. Helena Morrissey, a conservative Briton who has led a movement to increase the number of women on corporate boards to 30 percent on business grounds, agreed on the basis of the imperative of challenging groupthink. From this vantage point, representative democracy should require a legislature designed to ensure that every different group in the polity is represented.

Political theorists of various stripes, certainly including feminist theorists, have undoubtedly wrestled with this tension. For present purposes, I will fall back on “both/and.” As I wrote in a previous Weekly piece, Hillary Clinton taught me the mantra of “both/and politics” rather than either/or. It must be possible for people to exercise both the compassion and moral imagination necessary to speak, stand up, and even suffer for people whose life experiences they do not share. How else would the powerless ever enlist the powerful?

At the same time, the day must come when the powerful must make room for the growing power of the members of the groups they champion, stepping back to allow others to step forward. Yet even after that transition, surely room remains for everyone to march together side by side.

These are not abstract questions. At a time when the American citizenry desperately needs increased solidarity across many different political, geographic, and demographic lines, arguing about who is the most authentic representative of whom is missing a larger opportunity. Indivisible. E pluribus unum. We are many, but to become and remain one we must cultivate the capacity to imagine each other’s lives as generously and openly as possible as fellow human beings. Women who share the cause of true gender equality, notwithstanding our many differences, can lead the way.