Informal Political Representation: Normative and Conceptual Foundations

Dissertation, Harvard University (2018)
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It is possible that, as you read this, there is someone out there standing in for you, speaking in your voice, acting in your stead, making agreements on your behalf, or conceding a point you might not have wanted them to. They are not your congressperson, your lawyer, or your spouse—nor anyone else authorized by means of a formal, corporately organized election or selection procedure. There is another sort of representative out there, someone you did not elect, someone you perhaps would not elect, of whom you may never have heard, speaking or acting on your behalf right now—they are an informal political representative. Formal political representation is a familiar topic within democratic theory. Much less discussed, though no less widespread, is informal political representation: a practice in which a person speaks or acts for a group before an audience, despite never having been elected or selected to do so by means of a corporately organized election or selection procedure. Informal political representation is an everyday feature of our public communicative landscape. It is woven taut into the fabric of our political lives. Malala Yousafzai claims: “I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard.” U2 frontman Bono claims to “represent a lot of people who have no voice at all.” President Trump, before his nomination, was said “to give a voice to those who have long felt silenced." The informal representative, though neither elected nor selected, is ubiquitous and politically influential. They increase the visibility of marginalized and oppressed groups, give voice to interests not adequately expressed in formal political fora, influence public discourse, and serve as conduits between the represented and policymakers. They can, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did in Montgomery, negotiate on a group’s behalf. But so far, few have attempted to provide a theory of this phenomenon that gives full attention to both its conceptual and normative foundations. My dissertation provides a theory of informal political representation that does not treat the phenomenon as a mere deviant case of formal political representation, but rather takes informal political representation on its own terms. Committee: Tommie Shelby (chair), Tim Scanlon, Dick Moran, Eric Beerbohm



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Wendy Salkin
Stanford University

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