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Departmental Seminar: Descriptive Representation Revisited

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The Alison Richard Building

7 West Road

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CB3 9DT

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Speaker: Professor Anne Phillips, Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science, Professor of Political and Gender Theory at the London School of Economics, where she is based at the Department of Government.

It is now part of the shared assumptions of liberal democracy that representation involves some component of what has come to be known (though it’s not a term I much like) as ‘descriptive’ representation. Politicians, political commentators, and citizens now routinely comment on the gender and ethnic composition of elected assemblies, and take it as self-evident progress when an election generates a higher proportion of women representatives or a more ethnically diverse legislature. The normative arguments are by no means settled, as is evidenced by the slow progress towards anything approaching parity, but my focus in this seminar is more specifically on the challenge posed by the recent rise in populism. Populism derives its power from a sense of not being represented by a political elite perceived as in some way not ‘of the people’: as metropolitan, intellectual, establishment, etc. To that extent, it seems to express a feeling of marginality and under-representation of the kind that fuelled claims for descriptive representation, though with an emphasis more on class than gender or racial exclusion. But in invoking ‘the people’, populist movements also typically reject preoccupations with anti-racism, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism, gender equality , all of which are represented as elite preoccupations, at odds with the concerns of ‘working’ or ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ people. The turn towards populism then seems simultaneously to confirm the importance of descriptive representation and to reject much of its founding principles. The point of the seminar is to think about this.


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The Alison Richard Building

7 West Road

Cambridge

CB3 9DT

United Kingdom

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