Lisa Disch on Representation, Constituencies, and Political Leadership


Lisa Disch

Lisa Disch is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and an elected member of the Ann Arbor City Council. She is the author of the book Making Constituencies: Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy.

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The tension in what we want from democratic representation is that we want control over our representatives and we want creativity from them. If we control them, they are delegates. They’re not representatives. They do what we want. They act in our place instead of us. They act as we would in our place. If they give us creativity, they will bring things out of us and do things for us that we may not have imagined.

Lisa Disch

Key Highlights

  • Should elected officials serve as delegates or opinion shapers?
  • What is the line between leadership and manipulation?
  • What is the constituency paradox?
  • Does representation facilitate citizen mobilization?
  • Can realists be idealists?

Podcast Transcript

Over the course of this podcast, I’ve spoken with many different scholars about ways to draw citizens into the political process. Most of them look for ways to break down forms of representation that separate citizens from the levers of power. A common solution introduces forms of direct democracy. Another popular solution involves new institutions for deliberative democracy. 

Lisa Disch is different, because she believes representation serves as the catalyst for popular mobilization. In other words, representation actually facilitates democracy. Lisa Disch is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and an elected member of the Ann Arbor City Council. She is the author of the book Making Constituencies: Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy. 

As Lisa makes a spirited defense of representative democracy, I encourage you to compare her case against others for direct or deliberative democracy. Ask yourself, ‘Is her case for representation compatible with other approaches to democracy?’ Regardless I believe you’ll find her ideas are original and contribute to the ongoing conversation about democracy. 

Like always you can find a full transcript at You can also email your thoughts to But for now here is my conversation with Lisa Disch…


Lisa Disch, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Lisa Disch

Thank you very much, Justin. I’m delighted to be here.


Well, Lisa, your book was so original. It combines ideas from distinct traditions of democratic theory. I was reading along and found myself thinking, ‘Wow, she’s referring to radical democracy. Now she’s talking about deliberative democracy,’ and, for good measure, you even through in some good old E.E. Schattschneider democratic realism into the mix. So, it interwove all of these ideas. And so, I was so impressed with the final product that kind of came together. But at the center of everything, I think, it’s just really the question about representation, constituencies, and the relationship between the two. So, when we think about democracy, when we think about the ideas in this book, the question that was really at the center of my mind was should elected officials serve as representatives of their constituents or as the leaders who themselves become the opinion shapers?

Lisa Disch

I think that’s such a great question. You do get to the heart of the book. I am very much interested in this book in talking about what we expect from mass democracy and how we can recognize when it’s not functioning democratically. And I think that it is normal to think that political representation involves a kind of mirroring. And so, we judge our elected officials based on how well they reflect who their constituents are and what those constituents want. And we imagine that constituencies form around common interests and then they lobby or they elect representatives and the representatives respond to those demands. And if democracy doesn’t serve that we think it’s broken.

But my book really asks you to change the way you think about representation. There is lots of research that shows that only a fraction of the public knows enough about the details of different feasible policy options to be able to be represented in this way that we imagine. Here’s what I want, you do it, and you explained to me how you did it or what you changed if you didn’t do it exactly that way. Now we don’t even need research to show us that most everybody cannot do this. We can examine our own consciences. I mean, I may know in very broad strokes what I prefer, but an election campaign is going to give me slogans like Medicare for All or single payer system or health insurance vouchers.

And these slogans not only define what’s at stake in that election, but they map out positions on that conflict within and between the parties. And even though slogans provide only the most general policy guidance, what they really do is they get people’s attention. They shape opinion just as you said. They make them think that real change hinges on this election. And it motivates people to vote. This to me Is what representation does. It mobilizes. Representation of all kinds, elected officials, advocacy groups, charismatic individuals, they participate in crafting political demands and telling us what we’re fighting over and in bringing us into the fight.

So, when you ask should elected officials reflect or shape opinion, for me it’s not a question of should. In mass democracies representatives do shape opinion and they do mobilize constituencies. That’s what political scientists observe. And from my role as someone who thinks about, ‘Well, if that’s how it works, how well is it working?’ I want to say that it’s working just fine when it does those things, even though it violates our model. I think we should want representatives to bring people into the political process.


So, Lisa, it’s an odd line though, because, on the one hand, the leaders can be crafting these constituencies and bringing people into the political process. But from another perspective, it’s not the people organically rising up and demanding certain things. It can sometimes feel like a form of manipulation if you will. So, when we think about political leadership, when do we cross the line between forming constituencies and acting as democratic leaders versus becoming manipulators of public opinion?

Lisa Disch

That is an excellent question. And I think that we often think about representation in terms of this opposition between leadership and manipulation. And we think about leadership as being when I take a group of people who have formed, there is something that troubles them, but they don’t maybe know the solution to it. They may not even quite be able to name the problem. And so, leadership would be by talking to them and listening to them and helping them figure out what their problem is and helping them think about a viable or feasible solution to that problem. And then I would try to bring more leaders together to champion this group. Those would be acts of leadership on my part. And I think sometimes representatives do this.

But I think it’s rare actually that really consequential numbers of people organize themselves. I think we would all love to live in a world where consequential numbers of people organized themselves. But as we know from other theories about how hard it is to organize and the many obstacles, even that our own political system puts to mass organizing. We know that that kind of model of representation is most likely to occur with the wealthiest members of the population when they feel that their property interests are threatened.

And so, if we are really talking about democracy, democracy is going to require what I talk about as mobilization. And when I say, ‘Who’s for Medicare for all?’ We may feel that that’s manipulative because it is actually putting a thought in your head. You know, maybe you didn’t wake up this morning thinking about healthcare reform. In the 1970s. You didn’t wake up in the morning thinking about lead in your gasoline, but we thought about that for you. And we got you to be willing to pay more money for unleaded gasoline. That wasn’t something that you asked for. ‘You,’ I’m speaking broadly, I’m imagining the democratic public. So, we want to imagine that people speak for and name themselves. And I think this is idealistic, but not realistic. And I believe strongly that we want broad mobilization.

And we want to meet the interests of broad swaths of the population, not just the most well-organized to whom it comes most naturally to identify what they benefit from and to ask for that. And so, I am willing to tolerate more of what might look like manipulation from sort of an idealist perspective where we imagine this constituency organically emerging. But I also do think that there is a line. I think there is a line between legitimate democratic representation and manipulation. And I think that we often think that manipulation takes that form, that form of lying.

But there was a wonderful article that was published in June 2005 in The New York Review of Books by Mark Danner and Danner tells the story of how the US and Britain got involved in the Iraq war. And he talks about how, as the leaders of those countries discussed should we go to war or not, it was agreed that we were going to go to war. But that we had to act as if we had gone through a process of investigation. That we had given Saddam Hussein an ultimatum. You tell us where your weapons of mass destruction are and you give them up or we’re going to go to war on you.

Now Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction at that point. And the process that was staged for the public to make this war look legitimate, which was looking for these weapons of mass destruction didn’t turn them up. That to me Is manipulation and it’s not simply lying. It’s acting deceptively. It’s pretending to do something that you are not doing. You are not conducting an investigation to decide if this war is warranted, you’ve decided that you need to wage this war and you have staged a pretense to bring the public along. You might want to say that’s just lying, but I don’t think, I think that’s worse. I think that’s putting on a production that pulls the wool over the public’s eyes and makes them agree to something that they wouldn’t have thought maybe that it was worth spending the money or the lives on.


So, let’s approach this from the opposite direction. Instead of looking at it from leaders who might manipulate the public, let’s actually think of a few examples where the public did organically organize. And I can think of a few examples like Black Lives Matter. I can think of Occupy Wall Street. Over in Spain there was the Indignados Movement as well. One of the complaints out of all of these different movements was that when you have leaderless movements that don’t have defined leadership, it’s very difficult for them to negotiate with anyone to be able to get things accomplished. That there’s nobody to talk to. It’s not clear when the movement’s achieved its goals or when they’ve even made progress.

So, I’ll open this up to you, Lisa, because I think you’ve thought a lot about this when you do have these leadership leaderless movements that do arise do those actually provide solutions in the end?

Lisa Disch

You’ve named three of the most important recent movements and I think that they are unquestionably good for democracy. I think…


To step in, like, I mean I’m very supportive and I do think Black Lives Matter shifted the narrative and I do think that Occupy Wall Street shifted the narrative. But there’s been a lot of disappointment at the same time about the tangible results that they’ve accomplished beyond changing hearts and minds. And that’s compared to Civil Rights Movements like Martin Luther king who had a very defined leadership structure where he was able to produce actual tangible legislation. I just want to make that clear.

Lisa Disch

Yes, absolutely. And specific demands and was working a legal strategy, as well as a protest strategy, as well as a voter registration strategy, as well as an elect people to Congress strategy. That is a big difference between the Civil Rights Movement and the kinds of movements that you mentioned. Let’s just take Occupy Wall Street for a moment. And yeah, that movement really kind of branded itself as horizontal and leaderless and even with all the innovations on the strategy of the occupation itself as well as the various strategies of putting their message forward with the human megaphone and all of this, you know, there was very much a desire to resist anything that was top down.

Now, this movement was not without its own acts of representation even. So, the slogan we are the 99% was not true empirically. Right? I mean, these are first world folks imagining themselves to be among the 99% poorest of the globe. Not true. But incredibly effective. What they were saying was we are in a time of tremendous, unprecedented inequality where wealthy people have way too much. You know, their wealth translates directly into politics, because, especially in America, where we have things like political advertising and almost unconstrained spending on it. Not all countries have that. But we do and that is an accurate diagnosis and it mobilized people.

And so, one of the things that I would say about Occupy Wall Street is the movement did represent. Even though they thought of themselves as horizontal, they drew a picture of the world and they recruited people into their strategy of occupation with that slogan. And I think it was incredibly effective. Now, I’m not going to say that they were examples of representative democracy because that wouldn’t be fair to them. They weren’t and that’s not what they wanted to be. Then on this point, I think that you have identified something that was a limitation for Occupy Wall Street. The scope of what would need to be changed in order to answer their critique of the system means that they need control of levers of power that they did not want to tangle with.

So, if you really want to deal with contemporary capitalism and the inequalities that it creates both socially and politically, you will need to be elected to power. And that is not where they wanted to go. They did change the discourse though. Wow, did they ever change the discourse. I mean, even just in the election between Obama and Romney you saw that Romney’s gaffe where he talked about the 43% that want to vote for Obama because Democrats just give you everything and you don’t have to work. That rang so differently in the context defined by Occupy Wall Street.

Bernie Sander’s campaign, I think, was enabled by this kind of discursive shift. The very fact that Sanders can make socialism something that my students are cheering for in the classroom, that did not use to be the case. I can tell you. And so, these shifts in terms of the story that people tell themselves about what American democracy needs and what would be productive for it. These shifts are incredibly important. And so, it’s not a small thing to achieve. What Occupy did, Black Lives Matter took the fact of police violence against African-Americans that, obviously, it goes way back, but Black Lives Matter has made this a mainstream issue. Cities all over the country are talking about unarmed response or alternatives to police response for public health and safety issues that are wide ranging and not just crime in the typical way that we think about that.

And we wouldn’t have that without Black Lives Matter and the horrible murder of George Floyd had the fabric, the mouthpiece, the connections that that movement had created to become the big event that it was, not to say that it wasn’t big in itself. It certainly was, but Black Lives Matter had prepared a stage for that event to make people unable to stop confronting this issue. it really makes people have to confront the issue.


When we think about Black Lives Matter, it’s interesting because many in the African-American community would say that the leadership though was already in place. People like John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, they’ve both passed away now, but they were significant Civil Rights leaders that took this movement to heart, embraced it, and provided leadership for it within Congress and provided leadership as elected officials. It’s interesting because it’s an example where the constituency, the ideas, formulated from the bottom and then the leaders embraced it afterwards and then took it to the legislature, which is different than a lot of the examples that you kind of described where it’s the leaders who come up with some of the ideas or frame the issues and then the constituencies develop below it.

Kind of danced around this idea that you refer to as the constituency paradox and you define it as, “That democratic representation must posit as a starting point constituencies and interests that can take shape only by its means.” Anybody listening is probably struggling to follow me and don’t rewind the podcast. We’re going to make sense of it. Because I had to read it a few times to understand it. Lisa, why don’t you make sense of that term, that concept, that, really, it’s almost the centerpiece of the book, the idea of the constituency paradox?

Lisa Disch

You read that so well it almost made sense to me listening to you. But the constituency paradox strikes us as paradoxical because of the expectations that we have about democracy which we talked about already. But many of us hold two equally powerful expectations for democracy that conflict with each other. But they’re both valid. We feel that democracy is meaningless if constituencies have no control over their representatives who act in their names. Yet democracy would also be meaningless if our public policies transform nothing, if they reflect exactly what we think we want at this very moment. So, the tension in what we want from democratic representation is that we want control over our representatives and we want creativity from them.

If we control them, they are delegates. They’re not representatives. They do what we want. They act in our place instead of us. They act as we would in our place. If they give us creativity, they will bring things out of us and do things for us that we may not have imagined. They will redefine who we think we are, who we think our allies are, and what we think is worth fighting for. And this is the paradox. That mass democracy expects representatives to defer to wishes and demands and constituencies that if they’re doing their job right, they’re also trying to transform.

And so that’s what I mean and I’m so glad that you thought to bring this up sort of in the wake of our discussion of Black Lives Matter, because clearly that statement, the call to Occupy Wall Street, the claim we are the 99%, those were not crafted by elected officials or even established advocacy or interest groups. Those came out of people who are paying attention to politics and who are in pain really. And those words move people more than anything that probably an elected official or someone who does advocacy for a living could think of because you don’t necessarily feel that same pain.

And so, I am not trying to argue in the book that there’s nothing that ever comes from below. But I think it was also very significant, as you said, when a social movement gets some uptake from more official representative institutions or advocacy groups, because it can get a better foothold, it can last longer, and it can grow membership.


This wasn’t exactly what you meant, but it’s kind of a conundrum that I think a lot about how we think about our elected officials. On the one hand, we want them to be genuine and to believe everything that they say. But on the other hand, we also want them to represent our ideas so that if they are genuine in standing up for something that they believe. But if it conflicts with what we want them to do, then we’re all of a sudden angry at them for not representing us. But on the other hand, if all they do is follow public opinion and it looks like they don’t stand for anything, then we’re upset at them for not being genuine. It’s an irony that we have within the way that we think about our representatives.

And I think that’s really come clear too with the problems that Liz Cheney’s dealing with right now with the way that a lot of people in Wyoming do not like the fact that she took a very strong stand against Trump. But at the same time, Liz Cheney thinks it’s her obligation or responsibility to be able to do that as an elected official.

Lisa Disch

Yeah. That’s a really, really good example because, Liz Cheney is one of the most conservative members of Congress. But she is acting out of a duty to her party and it makes her unpopular with voters and unpopular with many of her party colleagues. And I have to admire her for that. And I also have to say that, you know, that is that is the job of a representative to think of the long-term survival of the organization that is the party. If you are an anti-party person and you get elected, not as an independent, but under the party standard, that is a crime. Political parties subsidize political participation. They are the cheapest and easiest way of getting involved in politics. You don’t have to have a fortune to be a member of a party and canvas for the party or make phone calls or whatever.

Even if all you do is vote and vote consistently with one party or another, that is the least expensive, it costs the least of the citizen to do that. We can’t do without parties. And to not care that your party is self-destructing around a charismatic individual. I’m sorry. I think she’s got it right. And I believe that that counts as democratic representation because it has the larger interests of small D democracy at heart in what she’s doing. And I probably wouldn’t agree on anything else she’s ever cast a vote on, but this stand that she’s taking means a lot to me as someone who believes that parties are central to democracy.


At the same time, as you’re describing the constituency paradox, I do feel a sense of a more traditionalist version of the way that politics work. We can think of it most easily when we think about elections because citizens cast a vote and they’re depending on the candidates to be able to make sense of what it is that they’re voting for. The candidates have to communicate what their ideas are and really draw a line as to what the political cleavages are, what is it that each one of these candidates stands for so that they can make a real decision at the voting booth. But politics is much more than that. Democracy is much more than that. And even today, democracy has become much thicker. Even as we’re seeing all of the many problems that almost come from that to be honest with you.

Social media is the most obvious example where citizens have constant direct communication with their representatives. Does social media change the dynamics? Does it change the necessity of the candidate of the politician to be able to frame the debate, because now they have direct access, direct communication lines with their constituents on a regular basis?

Lisa Disch

I think it actually can make it harder for politicians to frame the debate. Because I think that when you look at threads on social media you can see that in the groups that people regularly participate in, there are spokespeople in those groups and those spokespeople often frame what politicians are doing. And, yes, politicians have Twitter feeds and they have Facebook pages, but, you know, we all know that their staffs are doing most of that work. I mean most reasonable politicians leave that to their staff. So, it is harder, I think, to keep control of the message, because social media is a horizontal mode of communication much more than it is a vertical one.

And what people like or what they give thumbs up and thumbs down to and how they spin or how they, you know, they’ll even clip stuff, so that they are deciding how much of the message that their friends and people who subscribed to them see. And so, I think it’s made it more difficult. It has though created an illusion of a kind of immediacy of communication. That isn’t correct. Right? I mean, even if I were to tweet my state representative or respond to one of their tweets or something, they wouldn’t see it. They wouldn’t read it. I mean, there’s too much out there.

And so, where the real communication groups are with social media are these horizontal social groups that do read each other’s stuff and do respond to each other and do import content from politicians or advocacy groups or newspapers and things like that. But it’s much more of a horizontal than a representative constituent communication device.


So, when we think about politicians framing the debate and building constituencies for themselves and, by nature, building the opposition’s constituency against them, I imagine it creates a very binary process. Whether we’re talking about a two-party system or even a multi-party system, you’re either for the government or you’re opposed to it. You’re either in favor of what the government does or you’re opposed to what the government’s doing.

But in the book, you write, “To think of democracy means to think of it as plural.” And when I think of a pluralistic democracy, I don’t think of it as being binary where we think of everything as for or against. I think of multiple dimensions, where you’re approaching things from multiple different angles with multiple perspectives. And that there’s as many possibilities as there are ways to imagine the problem itself. How is it that we can marry these two ideas together. How is it that a politician can frame subjects that make them very binary in terms of the political issues, while at the same time remaining committed to a pluralistic version of democracy?

Lisa Disch

I wish we voted differently. First past the post voting really does mean that electoral campaigns tend to binaries, because you can’t afford to split the vote against yourself. So, you can’t have that kind of complexity. So, I absolutely love the fact that New York just had this ranked choice voting election for its mayoral election, because I think that actually it worked quite well. There were mistakes that were made, but that didn’t have to do with ranked choice voting. And I think it showed people what it means to have the possibility of saying, ‘Well, yeah, maybe these three choices would be fine with me.’ And to have candidates say, ‘Yeah, actually we kind of like each other.’ So, give her your second choice. Give me your first, but give her your second. You know, this allows for a just much greater complexity in terms of our political choices, which is a complexity that we have in almost every other domain of our lives.

So, one of the issues just is that I think that the moment of election in a two-party first past the post system, meaning that a candidate wins with the most votes, whether they get the majority or not, that system is going to tend to binary, to map the political terrain in binary terms through the campaign and at the election. And that’s going to have a mark on the way we think all the rest of the time also. So, it’s not just confined to that, but it will be most intense at that time. But I think that what we can see in the history of America is that at these watershed points where there was really a shift in what people thought was the most important thing to fight about.

And when there was really a shift in the balance of power, what was going on then was plural coalition building among unlikely and unprecedented coalition partners. And that is when democracy is at its best. When I don’t think of myself as being so fixed in my political position, that you just can’t move me and you can’t suggest that maybe I have an Alliance with someone who hadn’t occurred to me. And that work typically does not happen around the presidential election itself. It happens before that. And it is that kind of shifting coalitions, visionary alliance making, I think, it’s that kind of thing that we are losing in our politics right now.

Because our elections do work in a system that makes us binary and we have charged those elections, not just with the fact of I need a majority of votes to win, but also, I need to demonize my opponent. And then, you know, elected officials demonize each other in office. And it is just making people feel as though they have to hang on for dear life to where they are. And I think this is why we think of Liz Cheney right now as being such an unusual figure, because she’s not hanging on for dear life in the idea that you have to say the election was stolen and you can’t possibly agree to a fact that Democrats believe in and she is setting an example of an unusual and unlikely ally.


At the same time the political system that we have in the United States has been around for a long time. And obviously it’s had its ups and downs. I don’t want to pretend like this is the first period or era of political polarization we’ve ever undergone. But at the same time, it hasn’t always been like this. We haven’t always had politicians demonizing one another. Do you think that a large part of the problem really just comes down to a failure of leadership to be able to build positive coalitions?

Lisa Disch

I wish that we could find one thing that would explain it, but there are clearly many and some of them have to do with just the way that our economy has shifted. So, we no longer have the industrial based economy that we did. The knowledge economy that we have is known at every level, national, state, local level to produce vast inequalities to kind of gut the middle. So, that you have very wealthy and poor, but not as much in between. Those things have made a difference. Where we are in the process of climate change is affecting our politics, because it’s affecting our economy for one thing.

So, there are things that we used to do that we can’t do anymore. The coal industry actually isn’t going to come back and it’s not for lack of political leadership. It’s just not where the money is and , we’ve waited too long to act on problems that have been building over decades and our options are limited. I mean, I wish that it were just a failure of leadership, but I just think there’s a whole lot of infrastructure that isn’t serving us anymore. And we are lacking some of the organizations that we used to be able to count on to help people be engaged and informed in politics.

So, it’s a problem. The effects of decades long attacks on unions, it’s a problem what’s happening to our public schools that more people are looking for alternatives to public schools and being able to exit. And these sorts of things that build a common fabric and a willingness to sort of recognize and tackle common problems. I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ve ever had problems as big as the ones we’re facing right now.


So, you mentioned the word infrastructure and a big part of the infrastructure, the political infrastructure, in our country and in many countries throughout the world, to be honest, Is democracy itself. And we’ve been talking about pluralism which involves the people themselves and the book I read as an important work of democratic theory. So, I’m going to draw us back into some of the big picture ideas about theory for just a moment here. And one of the most interesting lines in the book is this. You write, “Democracy disincorporates sovereignty altogether.” It’s a puzzling line to me, because when I think of democracy, I think of it tied to sovereignty. The idea that the people are sovereign and it’s important to understand who the people are, so you understand who participates in democracy. But that’s not what you’re saying here, at least not how I’m reading it. Explain this line to us. Explain what you mean when you say democracy disincorporates sovereignty.

Lisa Disch

So, that line comes out of the work of a French philosopher called Claude Lefort. And the simplest way of thinking about it is that democracy is not simply the opposite of monarchy. It’s not a monarchy where instead of a king you have the people. The king did more than say, ‘I rule this and I rule that.’ The king did more than rule. The king anchored an entire social structure in terms of the ruling class, middle-classes. In other words, the king and everything that goes along with the king, which is clergy, which is the nobility.

So, when you take away the king, you take away the class structure of society. You take away people’s identities. You also take away the idea that God says who rules and you take away the idea that there’s some source outside of politics that tells us what we’re supposed to base politics on. We’re not supposed to base it on God’s word or God’s choice or even things in the Bible. All of this is uncertain and open to human making. And so, this idea of the body of the king no longer symbolizes the kingdom and the people as a whole. That’s part of it.

But what that means when you lose the body of the king as the symbol for this cohesion is that you’ve got to make up how things are going to hold together and what are people’s obligations to each other and what groups do they belong to. And can they move from groups? They can change their fundamental place in society and their fundamental allegiances. It means we don’t know who rules and we don’t actually know who we are as a people until we ask ourselves.


Do you believe that leaders provide the clarity for the people to learn who they are?

Lisa Disch

I do. I do. And that’s a very broad category for me. Leaders. Many, many different people elected and unelected. Like John Lewis has always been a leader all his life, even when he was viewed as a terrorist by our government. Right? That’s a simple example. Who doesn’t love John Lewis? But that’s what I mean and when SNCC proposed the freedom school that clarified that wasn’t something that necessarily came as a demand from sharecroppers. It was something that drew them in and that they wanted, they embraced, they flocked to. But SNCC thought of it. ‘Yeah. We need freedom schools because the schools that we go to, to the extent that we get them at all, are schools of oppression. We need freedom schools.’

You know, that is what leadership at its best in a democracy does. It empowers and enlarges the scope of democracy to include those who are marginalized and disempowered.


But, of course, not all leaders are as high-minded as John Lewis.

Lisa Disch



So, I would not describe your book as part of the deliberative school of democracy, but I feel that there’s lots of hints and lots of influences from it. And one of the democratic theorists that you cite is James Fishkin. And I went back to one of his books, When the People Speak, and in it he wrote, “The technology of the persuasion industry has made it possible for elites to shape opinion and then invoke those opinions in the name of democracy.”

And I felt like that got at the heart of the problem that you see within the constituency paradox, but it also raises an important question. Is there a way for people especially when we don’t have the right types of leaders, is there a way for the people to take that power back and be able to shape leaders once again in a way that Black Lives Matter did, but maybe when they don’t have the best leaders to be able to facilitate that change?

Lisa Disch

That’s a really good question and in some ways, the sentence you read from Jim Fishkin’s book is almost the opposite of me in some respects in that it’s only the dark side of what I’m talking about or it’s kind of suggesting there’s only a dark side to what you’re talking about. And I don’t believe that, you know. And because he very much gives you a picture of manipulation when the messages are coming from above and then being sold back to you as democracy, it’s only manipulation.

But your question about how to make a course correction when you have anti-democratic leaders. It’s kind of a stumper, I have to say. Because when anti-democratic leaders are really strategic and when they operate to make voting more difficult, it is difficult for a mass public. Because the mass public is being prevented from stating its preference in the easiest way which is voting. But I don’t know how to answer your question except to say that if there’s anything that I try not to think about, because I can’t think of a solution to, it’s really this idea that, as you say, the infrastructure of democracy is at risk in our country right now. And that all we see around us, you know, I talk about the good that parties can do in creating conflict. All we’re seeing is, you know, the negative examples of that.

And it’s really hard to think of how you get it to go right. And the examples that we have of it going right in some weird ways, they’re troubling examples. For example, Flint, Michigan, renowned for the water crisis, which is very much not just a water crisis. It’s a crisis of deindustrialization, suburbanization, the draining of resources from a city so that it would be stuck with a water infrastructure that it couldn’t afford to maintain. That it had created and built the suburbs that then turned around on it and did nothing to help it when it got into trouble. It’s a big story.

But what that crisis achieved was it mobilized citizen activists, citizen scientists, black churches, black neighborhood associations. There was more political mobilization in Flint that made that crisis be perceptible to the mass of America as a crisis. It wasn’t just a few well-placed EPA scientists. There was mass mobilization in that city. And that’s what enabled the outcome that we saw, which was not just the settlement that they got, which in many ways only addresses the harm that was done by the water. But it really raised people’s consciousness about what we do to kill a city and how race is caught up in what we do to kill cities.

And I think that it’s an amazing example of democracy and yet I can’t imagine that there’s a single person in Flint who thinks that it was worth it getting poisoned in order to get all mobilized and make this incredible democratic statement. And so, I can hardly hold this up as an example that makes me optimistic. And yet, in one sense it does, because that is an example where people did, absolutely did, shame their leaders on about every level. And brought about a public shaming and a transformation and consciousness about these issues which we knew about, but wouldn’t think about. You know, the inconvenient truths Flint brought about through democratic means, inconvenient truths that have made it harder for leaders to act with impunity towards their constituents. But if that’s what it takes,


So, Lisa, throughout the book, one of the big themes is this idea of democratic realism. That you come back to time and time again. And we haven’t tackled it head on, but I hope that it’s pretty obvious that you think of yourself as a realist and as a democrat, as you explain within the book. I do think that that idea has come out through our conversation. My question for you, it’s not about realism, but about idealism. And for people who consider themselves both realists and Democrats, what’s the place for idealism?

Lisa Disch

I’m so glad that you asked that question. So, yes, I do think the sense in which I am a realist has come out in this conversation in that I do not believe in the spontaneous action of a mass public. I don’t believe that they’ll spontaneously self-organize and be able to get what they want. And in that sense, I’m a realist and also a realist in the sense that a scholar named Vijay Phulwani has written about it. The realist asks how power can be acquired and exercised by as many people as possible starting from conditions of widespread inequality and popular disempowerment. So, what it means to be a realist is to know that we are in conditions of widespread inequality and popular disempowerment. We can’t wish those away.

But, of course, there’s a place for idealism. In the book, I tend to use the word faith, but I think that they’re pretty closely related. And that really is the belief that more voting is better. That more participation is better. That people when confronted with many different messages think more deeply and come to a better answer than when they only hear the one thing that they’re getting from their social media feed. Those things are all, I think, idealist in the sense that I’m optimistic about what people who are paying attention, just a little bit, not all the time, but paying attention just a little bit. And who really think that something’s at stake in elections, which really there is these days. And who weigh the messages that they’re hearing. And they think about now what’s plausible and what’s really not possible.

And where do I come out and what would be in my interest. And I don’t think that masses of people in the U.S. think that anti-democratic measures are in their interest or the interest of this country. And that probably does by many definitions make me an idealist and an optimist, but that’s where I land. And I know that you wouldn’t read the books that you read, if you weren’t an idealist too.


Well, thank you so much for joining me, Lisa. Your book, Making Constituencies: Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy, it didn’t come out that long ago, but I’ve had my eye on it for a few months now. So, I’m really glad that we got the chance to connect. I’m really glad I got the chance to read the book and thank you so much for writing it.

Lisa Disch

6 thoughts on “Lisa Disch on Representation, Constituencies, and Political Leadership

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  1. I listened to this podcast this morning and found it quite thought provoking. But I do find myself a bit at odds with the enthusiasm for ranked voting. While it is an improvement over plurality voting, that would be true of almost any option we might think of.

    And there are better options that should be considered. I have written extensively on this topic and I would invite others to read one of my most recent articles at

    1. Thanks for sharing, Paul! There are definitely a number of ways to approach elections.

  2. I could not listen to the whole podcast because it is obvious this ladysis not a democrat; she is another elitist. How do I know? Several of her thoughts give her away; the idea that the people expect “creativity” from the elected representatives, the idea that people did not ask for unleaded gasoline, and her expression that ideas can come “from below”, only elititists who, deliberately or innocently pose as democrats think that way.

    Let us go to basics; democracy means government by the people, not by any elected representatives, nor does it mean that people need creative people to take them where the people do not know they need to go. Nor are the people “below” the representatives.

    Such is the distorsion, of what democracy should be, by the the elected representatives.

    In a real democracy the people do not need creative representatives because they do not need representatives at all but, if the people decide they want representatives, such representatives are there to follow the will of the people and address the problems that concern the people. Finally, in a real democracy, the people are above the politicians because they have final executive and legislative power.

    Real democracy is direct democracy, representative democracy is not democracy, it is elected aristocracy, elected oligarchy, sometimes elected duopoly.

    Occupy Wall Street, BLM, the Indignados, Sanders, Trump, are eruptions thát happen in representative democracies because, by their very nature, in representative “democracies” the elected representatives have so much power that they forget about ordinary people.

    In a direct democracy the people decide if they want unleaded gasoline or, if the politicians decide the people should have more expensive unleaded gasoline, they have the power to tell the politicians: “no, we do not want unleaded gasoline”. They could also sayz “that is not enough, we want to ban all gasolines”.

    In a direct democracy, there are no representatives or the representatives are tune with the people because the peopla are the final decision makers. I believe that is why the Swiss people trust their government more than in any representative democracy.

    This lady is about smoke and mirrors to justify representative “democracy”. “Deliberative democracy” is more smoke and mirrors.

    I do not understand why so many politicians and pundits do not like direct democracy; it pushes them and the lobbies who finance their campaigns, or deliver millions of votes, to a secondary role.


    1. Victor, I’d keep your mind open to different perspectives on democracy. I’m also not sure some of her ideas are incompatible with direct democracy. Every new initiative needs to begin somewhere. Typically organizations with leaders spearhead the cause. Also, direct democracy only focuses on legislation. I’m not sure how it would work to execute or administer the laws. Even Athens had officeholders, although they were chosen through sortition.

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