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Democratic Representation: Acts, Aesthetics, Institutions

CSPT Annual Conference

Cornell University, May 13-15, 2021


The political crisis of our time is often attributed to a systemic crisis of democratic representation.  Prominent symptoms of this crisis include the breakdown of traditional political parties, the paralysis of legislatures, the degeneration of systems of electoral accountability and widespread claims of electoral fraud, the proliferation of extremist and conspiratorial micropublics, and the global rise of authoritarian populist leaders claiming to speak and act on behalf of the “real people.”  Political theorists have responded with a renewed interest in the normative and institutional underpinnings of political representation in constitutional democracies.  Moving beyond what Hanna Pitkin described as the “mandate-independence controversy,” recent scholarship considers not only how political representation can best reflect already constituted preferences, interests, constituencies, or identities, but also how different forms of political representation give shape to, mobilize, or enact those interests, preferences, and identities. 


The 2021 CSPT conference will feature a distinguished group of international scholars addressing these issues by exploring the theoretical, historical, and empirical dilemmas internal to the idea of democratic representation itself. 


Democratic representation poses distinctive difficulties arising from the fraught nature of its constituent subject – the people – as well as from the concept and practice of representation itself.  Associated with direct and equal rule in the ancient Greek context, democracy seems unavoidably undermined when elected representatives become the primary actors in political life.  Recent challenges to the sharp historical and normative divide between direct and indirect democracy, however, have recovered the representative function of various ancient institutions and renewed debate about the democratic purpose and potential of modern electoral institutions.


We have organized our exploration of the diverse challenges of democratic representation along three interdependent dimensions—acts, aesthetics, and institutions—that together articulate a complex and dynamic ecology of democratic representation.


Acts: In recent years, democratic theorists have emphasized the importance of political entities—from crowds to NGOs to emergent constituencies—to speak and act in the name of the people beyond official representatives in parliament or executive office.  How do we assess and evaluate the democratic legitimacy of such formally or legally unauthorized actors and claims?  What makes some of these actors more democratically viable than others?  What historical conditions can we identify that sanction some unauthorized political actors as “democratic” while delegitimizing others? 


Aesthetics: Aesthetics has been an important, if fraught and contested, resource for democratic politics.  Unlike resemblance or verisimilitude, representation and its characteristic organizations of truth, including narrative, image, and metaphor, make present what is absent.  Mediated and from a distance, representation brings to appearance and therefore into politics what, under existing regimes of intelligibility, is unseen and/or unheard.  This exemplifies its democratic possibility.  Creativity, as well as distance, also, however, endanger democracy by de-emphasizing participatory politics and opening the way to representation’s manufacture of a “people” through deception and illusion, a concern that led Walter Benjamin, among others, to associate aestheticized politics with fascism. Through what aesthetic forms does democratic representation bring a people into being?  How do democratic representatives re-present the desires, perceptions and experiences of their constituents?  How should they?


Institutions: The dominant institution of democratic representation – the competitive selection of leaders based on universal suffrage – has been subject to complaints of elitism, failure, and manipulation.  In what competing ways can democratic representation be institutionalized?  One longstanding alternative that has attracted renewed attention is sortition or selection by lot.  Whether in the form of citizen panels or legislature by lot, what are the most powerful arguments for or against sortition as a viable democratic instrument?  What other historical and contemporary models of aggregation and deliberation, from referenda and plebiscites, to rotation and randomization, and plural and non-territorial constituencies, might be available for institutional reimagination, renovation, and experimentation?

Conference schedule and registration here


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