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Theories of political representation often begin by specifying theterms for the first four components. For instance, democratictheorists often limit the types of representatives being discussed toformal representatives — that is, to representatives who holdelected offices. One reason that the concept of representation remainselusive is that theories of representation often apply only toparticular kinds of political actors within a particular context. Howindividuals represent an electoral district is treated as distinctfrom how social movements, judicial bodies, or informal organizationsrepresent. Consequently, it is unclear how different forms ofrepresentation relate to each other. Andrew Rehfeld (2006) has offereda general theory of representation which simply identifiesrepresentation by reference to a relevant audience accepting a personas its representative. One consequence of Rehfeld’s generalapproach to representation is that it allows for undemocratic cases ofrepresentation.

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Currently, it is not clear exactly what makes any given form ofrepresentation consistent, let alone consonant, with democraticrepresentation. Is it the synergy among different forms or should weexamine descriptive representation in isolation to determine the waysthat it can undermine or enhance democratic representation? Onetendency is to equate democratic representation simply with theexistence of fluid and multiple standards. While it is true that thefact of pluralism provides justification for democratic institutionsas Christiano (1996) has argued, it should no longer presumed that allforms of representation are democratic since the actions ofrepresentatives can be used to dissolve or weaken democraticinstitutions. The final research area is to articulate therelationship between different forms of representation and ways thatthese forms can undermine democratic representation.

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One popular approach to addressing the different and conflictingstandards used to evaluate representatives within democratic polities,is to simply equate multiple standards with democratic ones. Morespecifically, it is argued that democratic standards are pluralistic,accommodating the different standards possessed and used by democraticcitizens. Theorists who adopt this approach fail to specify the properrelationship among these standards. For instance, it is unclear howthe standards that Mansbridge identifies in the four different formsof representation should relate to each other. Does it matter ifpromissory forms of representation are replaced by surrogate forms ofrepresentation? A similar omission can be found in Pitkin: althoughPitkin specifies there is a unified relationship among the differentviews of representation, she never describes how the different viewsinteract. This omission reflects the lacunae in the literature abouthow formalistic representation relates to descriptive and substantiverepresentation. Without such a specification, it is not apparent howcitizens can determine if they have adequate powers of authorizationand accountability.

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In particular, it is necessary for to acknowledge the biases ofrepresentative institutions. While E. E. Schattschneider (1960) haslong noted the class bias of representative institutions, there islittle discussion of how to improve the political representation ofthe disaffected — that is, the political representation of thosecitizens who do not have the will, the time, or political resources toparticipate in politics. The absence of such a discussion isparticularly apparent in the literature on descriptive representation,the area that is most concerned with disadvantaged citizens. AnnePhillips (1995) raises the problems with the representation of thepoor, e.g. the inability to define class, however, she argues forissues of class to be integrated into a politics of presence. Fewtheorists have taken up Phillip’s gauntlet and articulated howthis integration of class and a politics of presence is to be done. Ofcourse, some have recognized the ways in which interest groups,associations, and individual representatives can betray the least welloff (e.g. Strolovitch, 2004). And some (Dovi, 2003) have argued thatdescriptive representatives need to be selected based on theirrelationship to citizens who have been unjustly excluded andmarginalized by democratic politics. However, it is unclear how tocounteract the class bias that pervades domestic and internationalrepresentative institutions. It is necessary to specify the conditionsunder which certain groups within a democratic polity require enhancedrepresentation. Recent empirical literature has suggested that thebenefits of having descriptive representatives is by no meansstraightforward (Gay, 2002).

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Another insight about democratic representation that comes from theliterature on descriptive representation is the importance ofcontingencies. Here the work of Jane Mansbridge on descriptiverepresentation has been particularly influential. Mansbridgerecommends that we evaluate descriptive representatives by contextsand certain functions. More specifically, Mansbridge (1999, 628)focuses on four functions and their related contexts in whichdisadvantaged groups would want to be represented by someone whobelongs to their group. Those four functions are “(1) adequatecommunication in contexts of mistrust, (2) innovative thinking incontexts of uncrystallized, not fully articulated, interests, …(3) creating a social meaning of ‘ability to rule’ formembers of a group in historical contexts where the ability has beenseriously questioned and (4) increasing the polity’s de factolegitimacy in contexts of past discrimination.” For Mansbridge,descriptive representatives are needed when marginalized groupsdistrust members of relatively more privileged groups and whenmarginalized groups possess political preferences that have not beenfully formed. The need for descriptive representation is contingent oncertain functions.

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Williams offers her understanding of representation as mediation as asupplement to what she regards as the traditional conception ofliberal representation. Williams identifies two strands in liberalrepresentation. The first strand she describes as the “ideal offair representation as an outcome of free and open elections in whichevery citizen has an equally weighted vote” (1998, 57). Thesecond strand is interest-group pluralism, which Williams describes asthe “theory of the organization of shared social interests withthe purpose of securing the equitable representation … of thosegroups in public policies” (ibid.). Together, the twostrands provide a coherent approach for achieving fair representation,but the traditional conception of liberal representation as made up ofsimply these two strands is inadequate. In particular, Williamscriticizes the traditional conception of liberal representation forfailing to take into account the injustices experienced bymarginalized groups in the United States. Thus, Williams expandsaccounts of political representation beyond the question ofinstitutional design and thus, in effect, challenges those whounderstand representation as simply a matter of formal procedures ofauthorization and accountability.