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Lisa Disch lecture: “Democratic Representation and the Constituency Paradox”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013
12:00 AM
Institute for the Humanities, 202 S. Thayer, #1022

The past few decades of empirical research on public opinion formation and citizen learning have produced a somewhat surprising finding. Political representatives do not respond to constituent demand “from the ground up”. Instead, political groups frequently take shape and define their interests in response to communications and policy proposals that representatives initiate “from the top down”. In politics, then, acts of representation do not simply reflect constituencies and their interests but help to bring them into being. This suggests that representing in politics functions more creatively and generatively--as theories of representation in culture, literature, and the arts would predict--than mimetically as normative political theories would prefer. It also poses a problem. That a fictional work has no direct material referent is both obvious and untroubling. By contrast, that a political claim has no origin in a constituency but, rather, participates in constituting the group or interest for which it purports to speak is disconcerting: How do we know when democratic representation is working well or badly if we can no longer assess it against the groups and demands it is supposed to “reflect”?

This talk will, first, explicate this dilemma as what I term the “constituency paradox” and, second, explore the implications of this paradox for contemporary debates regarding the relationship between economic and political inequality in this era of nearly unprecedented economic disparities.

Lisa Disch's interests in political thought extend from the thought of the mid-18th century to that of today. She arrived at the University of Michigan in 2008, having begun her career at the University of Minnesota. She specializes in contemporary continental political thought, paying particular attention to feminist theory, political ecology, and theories of democracy in both the US and France. Framing this range of interests is a concern with the power of conventions that are regarded as necessary or natural, and a fascination with how they come to be looked upon that way.