Is Representation Democratic?

Making Constituencies Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy
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Representation and Democracy

Perhaps the most widely cited book on democracy is Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition by Robert Dahl. Despite its widespread influence in the literature on democracy, very few writers refer to polyarchy. Instead, it’s become replaced with the more common term liberal democracy. Of course, I’m aware some find a nuanced difference between liberal democracy and Dahl’s term polyarchy, but this overlooks the reason why Dahl thought it necessary to refer to polyarchy rather than democracy. Democracy for Dahl was an unattainable idea. In a later book, he noted the most common criticism of democracy was it’s not democratic enough. 

Nonetheless, many reformers, writers, and scholars continue to imagine ways to make modern democracy more democratic. Majid Behrouzi, for example, wrote a book called, Democracy as the Political Empowerment of the People: The Betrayal of an Ideal. The betrayal, according to Behrouzi, was representation. Many idealistic critics of modern democracy fault representation for separating the people from more active governance. The proposals designed to solve this problem vary from increased referenda to mini-publics composed of everyday citizens. 

Lisa Disch does not share the pessimism over representation. She argues leaders serve as the engines of mobilization through the development of political constituencies. According to her, representation facilitates citizen participation rather than acting as a barrier between the people and government. Her new book, Making Constituencies: Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy, provides a reinterpretation of democratic governance. It’s a reinterpretation, because she does not propose radical reforms. Rather she approaches political theory with a firm grounding in how democracy works in practice. Let me explain…

The Constituency Paradox

Nearly everyone believes representatives should respond to the interests and concerns of their constituents. Disch refers to this as the bedrock norm. But she uncovers an overlooked assumption in this account. She writes, “Interest representation and the norm that underlies it necessarily presuppose that citizens form and fix their preferences prior to engaging with political institutions, acts of representation such as policy initiatives, or the claims and initiatives of candidates, political parties, and elected officials.” In reality, campaigns and candidates shape and influence citizen preferences and opinions. So, political leaders effectively construct the constituencies they serve and represent. Disch describes this as the constituency paradox. 

This is a nuanced insight with enormous implications. She recognizes political leaders have an expectation and even obligations to respond to constituent concerns. But leaders do not merely react to their constituents. They influence their constituencies through slogans and other forms of communication. So, the interests they represent inevitably bear their influence. Representation becomes a continuous loop where constituents place demands on their leaders, while their leaders continue to influence their constituents through the articulation and expression of those demands and interests. It has no clear point of origin so it’s difficult to discover whether the idea began with the leader or the constituents. The truth is it does not matter. Its evolution depends upon the interaction between leaders and their constituents. 

Political Leadership

Disch finds democracy works when political leaders use their role to draw people into the political process. Latent interests and concerns rely on political entrepreneurs to activate them and draw people into the political process. Leaders do not invent the interests or concerns of people, but they give them meaning through the articulation and expression of ideas that form and shape constituencies. So, representation becomes the instrument to mobilize the people rather than an impediment. In this way, representation becomes a vital part of democracy rather than a defect. 

Nonetheless, the line between representation and manipulation is not always clear. A leader can shape constituencies to serve their own interests rather than serve their constituents. When leaders openly lie or hide the truth, they can mobilize people around issues that lead them astray. Moreover, political manipulation takes on a life of its own as constituencies react to those lies to demand their leaders to take increasingly extreme positions in response. In other words, a lie can germinate and evolve through the interaction between leaders and their constituents into something toxic for the political environment. 

In many ways, this describes how Trump’s repeated refrain about a stolen election escalated into demands for new voting laws among Republicans. It wasn’t simply the lie Trump told about the election, but the interaction between Trump and his supporters. Trump fed off the reactions of his supporters who then expected him to represent their growing concerns about election integrity. The vicious cycle puts more responsible politicians into an awkward position. They can either lean into efforts to undermine American Democracy or they can defy their core constituency. 


Too often political philosophy comes across as impractical, because it relies on idealistic abstractions. Political science, on the other hand, focuses on empirical observations. Political philosophy does rest on abstractions, but it does not have to become unrealistic. Disch instills a commitment to realism into her philosophy. So, her ideas about democracy do more than justify the institutions and norms of representative democracy. She makes sense of some of the challenges democracy experiences in our everyday lives. 

At the same time, it’s not clear how a democracy recovers when leaders and constituents encourage the worst from one another. Representation establishes cycles between leaders and constituents. Most of the time these feedback loops become virtuous and reinforce democracy. However, the introduction of an undemocratic idea creates a vicious cycle that can reinforce claims of election fraud or the failures of democratic governance. 

In the end, the solution likely depends on political institutions to encourage virtuous rather than vicious cycles or loops of representation. Still, it’s not clear whether political institutions can or should overcome the will of the people. At some point, democracy depends on the people and their leaders to stand up for democracy itself. In the end, it is true that leaders can tell lies to the people. But for those lies to have salience, the people must want to believe them. 

Lisa Disch joins to the podcast tomorrow to discuss her book Making Constituencies: Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy.

Further Reading

Majid Behrouzi (2005) Democracy as the Political Empowerment of the People: The Betrayal of an Ideal

Kathy Cramer (2016) The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

Robert Dahl (1971) Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition

Robert Dahl (1989) Democracy and its Critics

Lisa Jane Disch (2021) Making Constituencies: Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2011) Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

Hélène Landemore (2020) Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century

Robert Michels (1911) Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy

Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics

E. E. Schattschneider (1960) The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Lisa Disch on Representation, Constituencies, and Political Leadership

Sara Wallace Goodman on Citizen Responses to Democratic Threats

More Episodes from the Podcast

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  1. I used Robert Dahl as an organizing principle my 2013 book, Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, although I added political culture as the fourth category. (Kettering Foundation)

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