Who Represents Me? Race, Gender, Partisan Congruence, and Representational Alternatives in a Polarized America

Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(4) 785 –804
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918806048
Few concepts are as fundamental to American democ-
racy—and few issues more essential to democratic legiti-
macy—than Americans’ beliefs that their views and
interests are represented in political institutions. But
while there are rich bodies of research examining issues
such as Americans’ trust in government and whether their
preferences are congruent with the behavior of their
members of Congress (MCs) and policy outcomes, schol-
ars have paid less attention to what happens when people
do not feel that the MC sent to Washington by voters in
their district actually represents them and their interests.
Do they, for example, seek out other options when their
own MC is a member of the opposing party? Likewise,
although scholars have demonstrated that descriptive rep-
resentation has positive effects on a range of political out-
comes for members of historically marginalized groups
such as women and people of color, we know little about
who they seek out when they are represented by MCs
who are not “like” them when it comes to salient identi-
ties and formations such as race, ethnicity, and gender.
Recognizing that Americans are simultaneously for-
mally represented by multiple elected officials and
informally represented by other political actors and entities
such as advocacy organizations, we use original survey
data to answer critical questions about their beliefs about
who represents them in national politics and to show how,
in a pluralist system, they decide which of many possible
actors represent them the most (Saward 2010, 38). In so
doing, our study provides a novel approach to thinking
about the connection between symbolic representation
defined by Hanna Pitkin (1967) as representation that
evokes “emotional, affective” beliefs that can lead people
to feel represented by political actors that they identify
with—and descriptive representation, or representation
that mirrors “the people, the state of public consciousness,
or the movement of social and economic forces in the
806048PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918806048Political Research QuarterlyEnglish et al.
1University of North Texas, Denton, USA
2University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
3Princeton University, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ashley English, Department of Political Science, University of North
Texas, 1155 Union Circle #305340, Denton, TX 76203, USA.
Email: Ashley.English2@unt.edu
Who Represents Me? Race,
Gender, Partisan Congruence, and
Representational Alternatives in a
Polarized America
Ashley English1, Kathryn Pearson2, and Dara Z. Strolovitch3
The belief among citizens that their views are represented is essential to the legitimacy of American democracy, but few
studies have explicitly examined which political actors Americans feel best represent them. Using data from the 2006
Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we ask new questions about whether respondents who share a partisan,
racial, or gender identification with their members of Congress (MCs) feel those members best represent them.
Although the framers designed the House so that individuals’ own MCs would be their closest and most responsive
representatives, a majority of respondents turn to other actors for representation. Partisanship is a key reason for
this attenuated connection, as respondents who do not share a partisan identification with their MCs are more likely
than those who do to rely on their party’s congressional leaders or advocacy organizations for representation instead.
Sharing a racial identification with one’s own MC can strengthen representational connections as respondents who
share a racial identity with their MCs are significantly more likely than respondents who do not to indicate that their
MC represents them “the most.” These results shed light on enduring questions about the significance of symbolic
representation and its link to partisanship and descriptive representation.
symbolic representation, descriptive representation, partisanship, race, gender
786 Political Research Quarterly 72(4)
nation” (p. 61). We do so by asking people who they feel
represents them the most effectively and by examining
how those attitudes are connected to the partisan, racial,
and gender identifications of the respondents and their rep-
resentatives. That is, we take up a provocative empirical
question—“What makes men [sic] feel represented?”—
that Pitkin left unanswered in her pathbreaking and con-
ceptually focused examination of the circumstances under
which people should believe in their representatives or
should feel represented (Pitkin 1967, 9, 111). Our approach
is, therefore, in conversation with work examining the rela-
tionship between symbolic and descriptive representation,
on the one hand, and work about people’s beliefs in the
legitimacy of their political institutions or the fairness of
the decision-making process, on the other. At the same
time, we depart from those studies by emphasizing peo-
ple’s beliefs about their own individual House members
and by providing them with the opportunity to indicate that
they would prefer to seek out another political actor for
representation instead (Abney and Hutcheson 1981;
Atkeson 2003; Atkeson and Carrillo 2007; Banducci,
Donovan, and Karp 2004; Barreto, Segura, and Woods
2004; Gay 2001, 2002; Hansen 1997; Hayes and Hibbing
2017; High-Pippert and Comer 1998; Howell and Fagan
1988; Jones 2014; Pantoja and Segura 2003; Reingold and
Harrell 2010; Sanbonmatsu 2003; Sapiro and Conover
1997; Verba, Burns, and Schlozman 1997).
Three central themes emerge from our analyses. First,
although the framers of the U.S. Constitution designed
the House of Representatives so that individuals’ own
MCs would be their closest and most responsive repre-
sentatives, the majority of Americans do not necessarily
believe that their MCs represent them better than other
political actors. Second, this attenuated connection is
conditioned by partisanship: People who share a partisan
affiliation with their MC are significantly more likely
than those who do not to look to them for representation,
and they are also significantly less likely to report that
other actors such as advocacy groups and congressional
party leaders represent them. Third, people are more
likely to “prefer” their MCs when they share a racial
identification with them, suggesting that Americans from
both dominant and marginalized groups recognize and
value the symbolic nature of descriptive representation.
Assessing the Framers’
Representative Claim
Americans are formally represented by four federal elected
officials: their MC, two senators, and the president. When
the framers designed American political institutions, how -
ever, they made what Michael Saward (2010) calls a
“representative claim” that the House of Representatives
would be the “people’s House.” They codified that aspira-
tion by creating small districts, holding elections every two
years, and making House members the only directly
elected federal officials (at the time). They hoped that these
provisions would ensure that House members would be the
most proximate to the American people. Proximity to one’s
MC is not the same as being represented by them, however.
Cindy Simon Rosenthal (1995), for example, suggests that
it is important for constituents to believe in their represen-
tatives. Likewise, Andrew Rehfeld (2006) argues that rep-
resentation can only occur when people recognize political
actors as their legitimate representatives, and Iris Young
(1997) explains that this recognition is more likely to occur
when people share a social perspective with political
actors, believe that political actors look after their interests,
and share political actors’ opinions, principles, or values.
People who share social perspectives with their MCs
should, therefore, be more likely to feel both emotionally
connected to them and to feel symbolically represented by
them.” They should also, in turn, be more likely to trust
them and to believe that their groups’ interests are being
represented (Gay 2002; Young 1997). A growing body of
research indicates, for example, that constituents who
share a gender or racial identification with their MCs are
more likely to trust and contact their representatives and to
participate in politics than those who do not (Abney and
Hutcheson 1981; Howell and Fagan 1988; Pantoja and
Segura 2003; Tate 2003).
Building on these suggestive insights about the condi-
tions under which people are likely to “feel” symboli-
cally represented, we argue there are several reasons to
believe that some Americans reject the framers’ notion
that their House members represent them the best. For
example, in a society in which race and gender shape
people’s understandings of their political identities and
interests (see, inter alia, Beltrán 2010; Celis et al. 2014;
Cohen 1999; Cramer 2016; Crenshaw 1989; Dawson
1994; Mansbridge 1999; Sapiro 1981; Strolovitch 2007;
Strolovitch, Wong, and Proctor 2017; Young 1994,
2000), constituents and political actors may be more
likely to share a perspective when they also share social
positions in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and other
salient identities. In an increasingly polarized environ-
ment, people may likewise believe that only a represen-
tative from “their” political party will share their interests
and values (Mason 2018). People whose race, gender, or
partisan identifications are not congruent with those of
their MCs may consequently not “feel represented,” par-
ticularly in the contemporary political environment in
which voters increasingly disapprove of the rival party,
and the House is more competitive and polarized along
partisan lines than it has been in nearly a century.1 In
such an environment, it may also be difficult for MCs to
overcome partisan disagreements with their constituents
through their nonpartisan “home styles” and constituent
case work (Fenno 1978; Mayhew 1974; Young 1997). In
theory, these discontented partisans could vote their MCs

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT