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The Duties of Informal Political Representatives

Fri, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Hilton Union Square, Continental Parlor 9


Informal representatives, although neither elected nor officially selected, are 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 negotiate on a group’s behalf, as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did in Montgomery. They can induce audiences to recognize a collection of persons as a group with shared politically salient interests. They can induce a collection of persons to come to see themselves as a group with shared interests. Informal representatives often fill a need, sometimes an urgent need, for representation. Yet the practice is unmoored from the more enforceable protections for the represented available in formal representative contexts. The informal representative’s position does not depend on being authorized. And although informal practices such as protest, disavowal, and dissent may provide some accountability, these mechanisms are less consistently reliable than the mechanisms, such as impeachment, recall, and voting out, available to the represented in formal contexts. Membership in informally represented groups is also usually less well-defined and more contested than membership in formally represented groups. Finally, in contrast to formal representation, the democratic values that ought to guide the representative’s relationship to the represented are usually neither institutionalized nor codified. What then are the ethics of informal political representation? I argue that the duties of informal representatives derive from the important and distinctive role that informal political representation plays in the promotion and maintenance of a society of equals. To realize such a society of equals, informal political representatives should promote a relationship with the represented that foregrounds such democratic values as respect, publicity, transparency, and openness to criticism.


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