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Underrepresentation occurs when members of discernible groups are not consistently present in representative bodies and among measures of well-being in numbers roughly proportionate to their numbers within the population. These underrepresented groups are discernable based on a shared history and an ongoing legacy of disenfranchisement, usually marked by gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and religion. Underrepresentation in basic social and economic measures, such as adequate housing, income, education, and physical health, generally coincides with a history of disregard, deprivation, and even violence. Access to these basic social goods is necessary to pursue a dignified life and is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the political liberties of democratic citizenship. When access to these goods coincides with markers of social and political marginalization or exclusion, the exercise of political rights and obligations and the opportunity to achieve a good life, however defined, is severely compromised.
The dimensions of underrepresentation in any society coincide with the access to and exercise of power. Historically, those with power use their influence to define full membership in the polity to include themselves and similar subjects while excluding those they designate as different. This “difference” is not without judgment but is defined as inferior to the privileged groups and as corrosive to the community. In some instances, groups want to assert their social difference but seek to change how a community values it. This is often the case with ethnicity, where an ethnic group wishes to maintain its cultural way of life but demands fair recognition and accommodation of its existence from the state and other members of the polity. However, in other instances members of disadvantaged social groups regard their “group” status as illegitimate altogether and strive to dismantle its very meaning and any associated punishments. The goal in this regard is elimination of their status as a “group.” Some consider gender to be an appropriate example of this perspective.
Fair political representation in democratic societies is essential because it is a key democratic activity geared toward generating legitimacy, setting agendas, and establishing the practices and policies under which people live. When identifiable groups of citizens are not present in representative bodies in adequate numbers over time, their interests and concerns tend to be absent, and thus a state of underrepresentation exists. A situation in which women and racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities are overrepresented on the lowest ends of most measures of social and political well-being, while remaining under-represented on the higher measures, raises the specter of structural inequality. Structural inequality occurs when measures of a good life and indicators of deprivation are visibly and measurably stratified along these lines.
One of the most potent ways to address structural inequality is through political participation and representative government. Yet women and minorities are politically underrepresented across the globe—both in terms of their presence in representative bodies and the interests those bodies address. Some scholars argue that to create more inclusive representative bodies, democratic societies should adopt a semiproportional electoral system that utilizes cumulative voting (Guinier 1994). Others advocate proportional representation through the single transferable vote (as in Ireland and Malta), party-list quotas for women and minorities (Phillips 1995), reserved seats in legislatures for marginalized groups (as in India and Tanzania), and public funding for minorities to organize and select their own slates of candidates (Christiano 1996).
Is it fair to consider an individual’s race, class, gender, or sexuality when deciding on the allocation of scarce goods or opportunities? Is it fair not to? If it is fair, then how should social difference be considered, and what weight should it be accorded? Who decides? If societies maintain that the distribution of goods should be solely based on merit, then how should they determine what is “meritorious” achievement; how should they address what is sure to be an increase in the existing inequality between, for example, whites and nonwhites, men and women, and the economically privileged and the struggling; and who should make these determinations?
If social difference cannot be ignored without serious deleterious consequences but according it too much weight, or too little, is associated with even more negative outcomes than not considering it at all, then the stakes are very high for arriving at any conclusion. At the same time, answering these complex questions regarding difference and disagreement is a matter of democratic judgment. That judgment cannot be truly democratic or just, however, unless all relevant members of the polity are fully included at all stages of deliberation and decision making.
Experiments with policies aimed at achieving a greater presence of members of historically marginalized groups in representative bodies show promise in India on local councils and in Scandinavian countries on national legislatures. In the United States, experiments at local and state levels, as well as within the national party structures, have produced policies, expanded agendas, and altered the very terms of the debate, which likely would have otherwise remained unchanged. How to go about increasing the presence of marginalized groups, however, is a highly complex endeavor fraught with potential, but very real, dangers.
Hannah Pitkin writes, “We show a government to be representative not by demonstrating its control over its subjects but just the reverse, by demonstrating that its subjects have control over what it does” (1967, p. 232). But this statement begs the questions of who or what is to be represented, and under what conditions representation can be understood as democratic, or even just? All political representation is about the representation of some group; to some degree, whatever proxy is used for the interests (be it geography, party, identity, or some other indicator), one runs the risk of subverting intragroup disagreement and even cementing differences. It is not enough to argue that a particular approach to representation holds the capacity to freeze differences because, to varying degrees, they all do. Any system in which a part stands for the (often heterogeneous) whole is assured to get it wrong on occasion. The challenge is for the part to represent the whole as faithfully and justly as can be made possible through fair and inclusive procedures and processes.
- APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy. 2004. American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality. Perspectives on Politics 2 (4): 651–666.
- Christiano, Thomas. 1996. The Rule of the Many: Fundamental Issues in Democratic Theory. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Guinier, Lani. 1994. The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy. New York: Free Press.
- Phillips, Anne. 1995. The Politics of Presence: Issues in Democracy and Group Representation. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. 1967. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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