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PLSC 238: Public Opinion and Representation November 28: Descriptive and Substantive Representation

Baobao Zhang November 27, 2012

This week’s readings deal with the theories of descriptive and substantive representation. Mansbridge (1999) defines descriptive representatives (DR) as “individuals who in their own backgrounds mirror some of the more frequent experiences and outward manifestations of belonging to the group” they represent (638). An example of descriptive representation would be a black congressman representing a district that is mostly black. On the other hand, substantive representation (SR) disregards the demographic background of the representative relative to his or her constituents. Under substantive representation, a white congresswoman can do a good job representing a mostly black district if her policy interests are aligned with those of her constituents. But, in her paper, Mansbridge argues that DRs should represent disadvantaged groups for several reasons. First, DRs are better at communicating with constituents when there exists group mistrust and non-crystallized interests. Second, DRs increases disadvantaged people’s political efficacy and legitimizes a polity that had previously discriminated against some of its people. Mansbridge’s theory, though cogent and plausible, still needs to be tested. In this reading


PLSC 238: Public Opinion and Representation Baobao Zhang response, I will first discuss experimental studies to test DR and SR. Chiefly, I will be writing about my friend David Broockman’s (2012) forthcoming paper “Black Politicians Are More Intrinsically Motivated To Advance Blacks’ Interests.” Second, I explain how these two different types of representation affect constituents’ perceptions of political facts. Turning to my work on the Scottish independence movement, I argue that constituents’ desire for DR stem from factors beyond getting goods and services (i.e., welfare). Throughout the empirical part of this essay, I will weave in Mansbridge’s theories of representation. Broockman’s (2012) study is an extension of Butler and Broockman’s (2011) paper. In the original field experiment, the authors discover that white legislators of both parties exhibited similar levels of discrimination against a person with a black alias requesting help with registering to vote. In the more recent field experiment, Broockman emailed 6,928 U.S. state legislators using a putatively black alias for help signing up for unemployment benefits. He randomized whether the sender purported to live within or outside from each legislator’s district. Non-black legislators are significantly less likely to respond to the emails than their black counterparts, Broockman discovers. Furthermore, large numbers of black legislators responded to emails that purportedly came from outside their district. Findings from both of these studies partly confirm Mansbridge’s thoughts on mistrust by disadvantaged groups. Although blacks have suffered discrimination in the past, do black constituents have a legitimate reason to not trust their white representatives today? Broockman and Butler’s answer appears to be yes. Non-white representatives discriminate against black constituents, at least in terms of failing to provide them with services. Therefore, Mansbridge’s argument that DR provides greater benefits to disadvantaged groups appears to hold. 2

PLSC 238: Public Opinion and Representation Baobao Zhang

But what if SR worked to the advantage of an underrepresented group? What if representatives of one ethnicity actually provide sufficient benefits to constituents of another ethnicity? Such is the interesting case of representation in the U.K. Welfare spending in Scotland is 6 percent higher per capita compared with the rest of the UK while each taxpayer pay less than the UK average. Thus, a substantial part of the Scottish welfare budget must come from other parts of the UK.1 The allocation of revenue from the rest of the UK to fund Scotland’s welfare programs is decided by Westminster. In short, SR benefits Scots at the expanse of the non-Scots. Nevertheless, there exist a powerful independence movement in Scotland. In Mansbridge’s Table 1, she lists institutionalizing fluid forms of descriptive representation (653). The least fluid forms she lists are 1) quotas in constitutions and 2) quotas in laws. These are forms of descriptive representation the British granted to the Scots before devolution in 1997. One can think of independence as the most extreme form of descriptive representation, so rigid that it exists beyond Mansbridge’s table. But this extreme form of descriptive representation will probably create instability for the Scottish welfare state. For a logical Scotsman, it would be preferable to accept SR through Westminster than to vote for independence. Yet, people are not always logical. Looking at data from the 2011 Scottish Election Survey, those who favor independence are significantly more likely to believe budget cuts enacted by Westminster are unfair to Scotland. (See Figure 1.) They people hold onto this erroneous belief despite facts that suggest otherwise. Whereas American blacks have a legitimate reason to mistrust non-white representatives, Scots do not have a legitimate 1

Carrell, Severin. “IDS accused of scaremongering over Scottish independence remarks.” The Guardian. September 19, 2012.


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Again, Mansfield could provide an interesting explanation for the Scotsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; desire for DR. Writing about the functional reasons for supporting DR, she discusses past injustices disadvantaged groups faced. DR provide minorities and men with a sense of political efficacy, or as Mansbridge phrases it, the feeling that they haveâ&#x20AC;&#x153;ability to rule.â&#x20AC;? Furthermore, DR enhances the legitimacy of a polity by making historically under-represented groups feel as if they are part of the political process (650). One only need to remember the movie Braveheart to recognize that Scots had been second-class citizens throughout British history. Devolution legitimized the British polity for more than a decade. But now, even this radical form of 2

Though I confess, having lived in England during the past summer, some English people display ethnocentric attitudes towards Scots.



PLSC 238: Public Opinion and Representation Baobao Zhang

descriptive representation might not be enough to appease separatists. Scholars of American politics and comparative politics often talk across each other. One cause that led to the lack of dialogue could be attributed to the exceptional human geography of the U.S. Blacks and other ethnic minorities are distributed – though not evenly – throughout the U.S. There are no “black states” or “white states,” as there exist an England or a Scotland. Therefore, a group’s desire for descriptive representation will never turn into separatism.3 But actually, the geographic distributions of ethnic groups in other countries are not so clear-cut. Many English live in Scotland and many Scots live in England. (The former are allowed to vote in the 2014 referendum for Scottish independence while the later are not allowed.) Therefore, scholars of nationalism might benefit from discussing ethnic politics in terms of DR and SR.

References Broockman, David. 2012. “Black Politicians Are More Intrinsically Motivated To Advance Blacks’ Interests: A Field Experiment Manipulating Political Incentives.” Forthcoming, American Journal of Political Science. Butler, Daniel & David Broockman. 2011. “Do Politicians Racially Discriminate Against Constituents? A Field Experiment on State Legislators.” American Journal of Political Science 55(3):463–477. Mansbridge, Jane. 1999. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”.” Journal of Politics 61(3):628–657.


Although, some radical black activists in the 1960s and 1970s did advocate black nationalism.


Nov 28 Reading Response  

Reading response