Working-Class Legislators and Perceptions of Representation in Latin America

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(4) 910 –928
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919829583
Democracy rests on the idea that power should reflect the
will of the people. In practice, however, democracies vary
dramatically in their representativeness, with different groups
in society facing varying levels of inclusion (Alexander,
Bolzendahl, and Jalalzai 2017; Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-
Robinson 2014; Hughes 2013). Working-class people are
particularly underrepresented in democracies across the
globe, as politicians are selected from a narrow set of elites
(Best 2007; Carnes 2013; Taylor-Robinson 2010). In Latin
America, for instance, working-class citizens—which we
define based on one’s occupation or position in the labor
force—make up the vast majority of the labor force, yet
remarkably few legislators have working-class backgrounds
(Carnes and Lupu 2015). This political exclusion of the
working class calls into question one of the fundamental
principles of democracy. How does the drastic underrepre-
sentation of the working class influence citizens’ perceptions
of and satisfaction with the legislature?
We provide the first study of workers’ symbolic repre-
sentation. Scholars have defined symbolic representation
as the feeling of being fairly and effectively represented
(Schwindt-Bayer 2010; Schwindt-Bayer and Mishler
2005). Although previous research has investigated the
symbolic effects of the descriptive representation of
women (Barnes and Burchard 2013; Beauregard 2018;
Carreras 2017; Kerevel and Atkeson 2017; Liu 2018) and
minorities (Badas and Stauffer 2018; Hayes and Hibbing
2017; Rocha et al. 2010), and research has examined the
policy (e.g., Carnes 2012, 2013; Carnes and Lupu 2015;
Micozzi 2018) and electoral consequences (Carnes and
Lupu 2016a; Carnes and Sadin 2015) of working-class rep-
resentation, no study has considered whether descriptive
representation of the working class improves perceptions
of representation.
Building on previous research on democratic represen-
tation of marginalized groups (Schwindt-Bayer and
Mishler 2005), we posit that workers’ descriptive represen-
tation may enhance evaluations of the legislature by signal-
ing a more inclusive policy-making process. Moreover,
given that working-class legislators hold different policy
preferences (Carnes and Lupu 2015; Grumbach 2015) and
advance different policy agendas (Carnes 2012, 2013;
Micozzi 2018) than white-collar representatives from the
same political party, working-class representation may
also enhance evaluations of the legislature via policy
responsiveness. Consequently, we anticipate that whereas
workers’ exclusion may undermine citizens’ trust in and
satisfaction with the legislature, greater inclusion of the
working class serves to strengthen citizens’ satisfaction
with the legislature both directly (by signaling that the
829583PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919829583Political Research QuarterlyBarnes and Saxton
1University of Kentucky, Lexington, USA
Corresponding Author:
Gregory W. Saxton, Department of Political Science, University of
Kentucky, 1615 Patterson Office Tower, Lexington, KY 40506, USA.
Working-Class Legislators and
Perceptions of Representation
in Latin America
Tiffany D. Barnes1 and Gregory W. Saxton1
How does the near-exclusion of working-class citizens from legislatures affect citizens’ perceptions of representation?
We argue that when groups of people are continually denied access to representation, citizens are less likely to
believe that their interests are represented by the legislature. By contrast, more inclusive institutions that incorporate
members of the working class foster support for representative bodies. Using a multilevel analysis of eighteen Latin
American countries—a region plagued by disapproval of and disenchantment with representation—we find that
greater inclusion of the working class is associated with better evaluations of legislative performance. These findings
have important implications for strengthening democracy in Latin America, as they indicate that more diverse political
institutions may be key to deepening citizens’ attachments to representative bodies.
working class, symbolic representation, descriptive representation, Latin America, legislature
Barnes and Saxton 911
legislature is more representative) and indirectly (via pol-
icy representation).
Furthermore, as we elaborate below, a more representa-
tive government should appeal to a broad range of vot-
ers—not just the working class (Mansbridge 1999). The
inclusion of working-class representatives signals that
democracy is inclusive of all citizens—rather than domi-
nated by the rich or overrun by corruption—and enhances
the de facto legitimacy of representative institutions for
everyone (Mansbridge 1999). The presence of working-
class lawmakers further signals the potential for more pro-
gressive economic policies that may appeal to the average
voter. Consequently, we also anticipate that workers’ inclu-
sion will be associated with more positive evaluations of
legislatures for all citizens.
To evaluate support for our argument, we analyze elite
and public opinion surveys from eighteen Latin American
countries between 2008 and 2010, which exhibit substantial
variation in the level of working-class representation in
national legislatures. We use data from the University of
Salamanca (USAL) to identify legislators with working-
class backgrounds, and individual-level data from the Latin
American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) to evaluate citi-
zens’ beliefs about representation. Using both affective trust
and evaluative questions of policy-making performance, we
find that higher levels of working-class representation are
associated with more positive perceptions of the legislature.
Citizens are more likely to approve of legislative perfor-
mance, trust the legislature, and believe that the legislature
has accomplished everything they hoped it would, when
workers are represented in higher proportions. Importantly,
we find this relationship extends to all citizens, not just
members of the working class.
Our findings suggest that the underrepresentation of
the working class can partially explain the “widespread
disenchantment with and rejection of” legislatures over
the last two decades (Mainwaring 2006, 16). This
research, thus, has important implications for the quality
and survival of democracy. Dissatisfaction with and mis-
trust in the legislature poses challenges for democratic
stability and consolidation (Cleary and Stokes 2006; Linz
and Stepan 1996) and the quality of democracy more
broadly (Luna and Zechmeister 2005; Mainwaring,
Bejarano, and Leongómez 2006). When representative
linkages between citizens and the state break down, elec-
toral participation declines (e.g., Barnes and Burchard
2013; Kittilson and Schwindt-Bayer 2012; Liu and
Banaszak 2017), electoral volatility increases, and citi-
zens turn to antiestablishment figures and political out-
siders (Carreras 2012; Mainwaring, Bejarano, and
Leongómez 2006; Morgan 2011). Breakdowns in repre-
sentative linkages previously precipitated democratic set-
backs in Latin America (Mainwaring, Bejarano, and
Leongómez 2006), as well as in more entrenched
democracies where dissatisfaction with representation
has given rise to populist antiestablishment leaders
(Bowler et al. 2017). Importantly, our findings suggest
one way that democratic institutions can enhance citi-
zens’ perceptions of representation and trust in institu-
tions is by incorporating members of historically
marginalized groups into the legislature.
Descriptive Representation
and Workers’ Perceptions of
Legislatures are the primary institutional vehicle for achiev-
ing democratic representation (Mainwaring 2006; Taylor-
Robinson 2010), and interparty politics within the legislature
is key to the success of programmatic policy goals (Crisp
2006). Indeed, it is within the legislature that descriptive rep-
resentation generally yields substantive outcomes
(Mansbridge 1999, 2015; Pitkin 1967). Despite legislatures’
representative function, Latin America has been character-
ized by a significant disenchantment with and mistrust of the
legislature in recent decades (Mainwaring 2006;
Mainwaring, Bejarano, and Leongómez 2006).
We posit that the exclusion of the working class—a
group that constitutes a sizable majority of the population in
Latin America—contributes to this mistrust of political
institutions. Whereas workers make up the vast majority of
the labor force across Latin America, they only hold a small
share of legislative seats in the region. When white-collar
representatives are left to act on behalf of the working class,
this signals to workers that their participation in politics is
not valued. By contrast, the mere presence of working-class
representatives in decision-making bodies may have a
direct effect on symbolic representation—improving citi-
zens’ feelings about representation (Schwindt-Bayer and
Mishler 2005). Moreover, when descriptive representation
leads to improved policy representation, it may have an
indirect effect on citizens’ evaluations of the government.
In this section, we argue that representation of the working
class may help restore trust in and satisfaction with legisla-
tures among working-class citizens. In the next section, we
explain why higher levels of working-class representation
may improve perceptions of representation in society more
Symbolic Representation Emanates from
Descriptive Representation
In Latin America, class is one of the most salient and defin-
ing societal cleavages. Working-class citizens have funda-
mentally different life chances, and they remain on the
margins in politics (Carnes and Lupu 2015). Workers’ dra-
matic underrepresentation in Latin America has created an

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