Breaking It Down is GPPR’s new series focused on explaining emerging and approved solutions for various political problems. In this second part, I explain the concept of reflexive representation and its credibility as a tool for better governance in the world.
About 50% of American voters had an unfavorable opinion of their representatives in Congress, according to The Congress Management Foundation poll in 2019. As my first article in this series discussed, our current electoral system has a lot to do with this dissatisfaction: our winner-takes-all system does not require a candidate to win at least 50% of the vote for win his seat. Realizing our electoral future means implementing preferential voting, which is a legitimate solution to reducing American disillusionment with politics and government. But, I argue that a comprehensive solution is needed to fully address all aspects of the problem. This week we examine the merits of reflective representation and why it is a stronger ideal than many believe.
Mapping the landscape of reflective representation
How to define reflexive representation? Academia does not traditionally use this term, choosing instead to divide it into two concepts: descriptive and substantive representation. Descriptive representation looks like what it means: shared attributes that would imply a connection between the voter and the candidate or elected official. These attributes can be gender, race, ethnicity, disability, class, veteran status, etc. Substantial representation is where the candidate or elected official effectively advocates for issues related to these shared identities.
Proponents of electoral reform often point to descriptive representation because it is difficult to measure substantive representation numerically. But, they advocate both electoral reform groups argue for descriptive representation as a link to achieving substantive representation. While “bringing everyone to the table” doesn’t always guarantee better representation, it often does to some degree and is therefore a popular corporate leadership strategy.
The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) reported that “the importance of having women in Congress is still not fully appreciated”, which strongly implies that thoughtful representation is not seen as a credible strategy to improve governance. While this may be true, reflective representation has attracted international attention from proponents of electoral reform in recent years.
Each month the Inter-Parliamentary Union publishes global rankings on the percentage of women in national parliaments, which has lobbied authoritarian and democratic governments to increase the inclusion of women in elective and ministerial positions. Research centers such as Represent women produce significant amounts of research on gender in politics, such as their Gender parity index for the United States. These numbers underscored the relevance of adequate representation in Congress, leading to laws like the Fair Representation Act.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also spurred public debate about how people feel represented by their elected representatives. For example, the Victory Fund reported that LGBTQIA+ people made up just 2.1% of congressional representatives, despite conservative estimates showing they make up 5.6% of the US population. Yet their Queering Congress 2022 report finds there has been a 16% increase in LGBTQIA+ candidates for Congress since 2020 and 41% identify as people of color.
Often it takes demonstrations of public support and a clear avenue to encourage marginalized groups to run for office. Indeed, many obstacles can prevent them from standing for election, such as: security threatsdecline in recruitment rates of female and diverse candidates party leadership, physically inaccessible and dear campaign environments, and the list goes on. It is important that the number of applicants from disadvantaged groups increases, as this can create a positive feedback loop that continues to encourage more members of the community to apply.
In 2017, when I watched trans people win elections across the country, I saw a door open for me to make this race a reality. I was able to combine my qualifications with my passion for public service and a new found confidence knowing that it happened and it can happen to me.
Representative Brianna Titone, Colorado’s first transgender legislator
Reflexive representation and governance: is there a link?
Once the basics are laid, the question can be asked: is reflexive representation an effective strategy for improving American governance? Some may argue that my prior involvement in electoral reform biases my answer, but I strongly believe that there is objective evidence to support the merits of thoughtful representation. We’ll take a look.
Skeptics of reflexive representation often make the mistake of considering it only at the national level, where there is naturally a greater imaginary distance between a single voter and the elected. But what about the local level – what about our school boards, community safety boards, and even mayors?
In my published report on women with disabilities in politics, I highlighted Nicki Vander Meulen, who is the first openly autistic member of a school board in the United States. She won her re-election campaign with over 60% support and she also made history by being the first school board member in her district to visit every school in the district during her first term. Nicki Vander Meulen embodies the definition I gave of reflexive representation. Descriptively, she made history as the chosen one with autism and paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps. On the merits, she also made history as a member of the school board and significantly advocated for her community by improving the educational experiences of students with disabilities.
Nicki Vander Meulen embodies the definition I gave of reflexive representation. Descriptively, she made history as the chosen one with autism and paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps. On the merits, she also made history as a member of the school board and significantly advocated for her community by improving the educational experiences of students with disabilities.
California is a great state to consider when thinking about reflective representation. Assembly Representative Jose Medina often championed issues related to the equity of higher education for marginalized communities, and many marginalized communities felt supported by his speeches and accompanying legislation. In February, Governor Newsom appointed the first Latina woman on the Supreme Court of California, which is major given that 39% of California residents are Latinos.
Even at the national level, we have seen similar results. The popular Netflix documentary, break down the house, was a clear embodiment of the power and sympathy of reflexive representation. Regardless of their politics, these women stood out because they went against the grain in their interactions with voters. They have bridged the gaping gap that often seems to exist between a federal representative and their constituents by being the first to reach out both to their own communities and to their constituents as a whole. AOC has produced multilingual material in recognition of the large immigrant populations in its constituency. Cori Bush, for whom I had the privilege of interning, had an intimate understanding of socio-economic issues as someone who had first-hand experience of poverty, homelessness and safety net programs .
There is power in reflective representation, and while it does not guarantee a 100% transition from descriptive to substantive representation, it is wrong to blame strategy for it. No strategy is 100% successful, and thoughtful representation is likely to produce many benefits without causing harm.
Combining my main points from the previous article on RCV and this article, it is evident that the electoral design and the limited diversity of candidate pools contributed to disillusionment and a sense of distance between representatives and voters. RCV can greatly incentivize diverse candidates to run for office, and thoughtful representation ensures more inclusive and effective policy-making that creates a positive feedback loop to strengthen both descriptive and substantive representation.
Especially in recent years, it has been encouraging to see more first-generation, LGBTQIA+, disabled, BIPOC, low-income, women, and other more diverse groups increase their number of candidates each election cycle. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, many election advocates will be on the lookout for changes in descriptive representation, and the media likely will be too. It will be instructive to see how much voters embrace thoughtful representation when casting their ballots this midterm season.
Alisha Saxena (her) is the editor of the Georgetown Public Policy Review and a master’s candidate in public policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy. She is currently an intern with the Economic Innovation Group and AARP, and previously worked as a research associate for RepresentWomen. Alisha is an avid reader, having read over 250 books as of 2022.