Centripetal Representation

The forthcoming article “Centripetal Representation” by Daniel Hutton Ferris is summarized by the author below. 

The complexity of systems of representation across much of the (post-)industrial world has exploded in recent decades: organizations and policy-making processes have stretched across borders, especially in the European Union; relatively stable patterns of post-war party competition have broken down; and rhizomatic governance networks have sprung up alongside older bureaucratic hierarchies. Technological developments including the growth of social media have compounded these changes, propelling us into an era of unprecedented communicative plenty characterized by a superabundance of new and diverse representative claims refracted across a broad spectrum of channels and sometimes directed at minutely segmented audiences. 

Leading theorists of representation tend to agree – despite substantial disagreement elsewhere – that this emulsification of representative practices is likely to bolster democratic legitimacy. Constructivists want to open electoral politics to a much more diverse range of competitors or surround it with a more vibrant ecosystem of representative claims made by the unelected. Deliberative democrats recommend randomly selecting legislators to make public political discourse more pluralistic, as well as lacing policy processes with deliberative assemblies containing “citizen representatives” of diverse publics and perspectives. 

Yet the fragmentation of the representative system poses a serious threat to democratic legitimacy and democratic simplifications can help ordinary people engage with, understand, and influence their representatives, pushing back against gridlock, collusion, and capture by the powerful. Multiplying veto-points and “voice points” makes it harder for ordinary people to monitor and sanction representatives, who thereby become liable to shirk their duty to represent constituents and vulnerable to capture by well-resourced minorities. Powerful representatives in fragmented institutional environments often also face a dilemma: should they collude with opponents to get things done or risk gridlock by providing principled opposition? Furthermore, discursive fragmentation can distract, deceive, and disengage people by making it harder for them to contextualize and interpret claims by and about representatives and less sure of how or whether those claims relate to each other and to outcomes. Ordinary people may be dangerously alienated from powerful representative institutions if high-profile public justifications look like window-dressing for policies cobbled together in labyrinthine processes of networked bargaining and highly personalized political communications can threaten their understanding of what political disagreement is really about and why it might be reasonable.  

This article develops a general theory about how representative systems might best promote democratic legitimacy – one that recognizes the potential benefits of networked responsiveness between diverse kinds of representative but is alert to the threat of fragmentation and the value of democratic simplicity. It argues that systems of representation are most likely to capture the benefits of pluralism and heterogeneity whilst avoiding fragmentation when their structure is “centripetal”: with power and influence moving inwards, via processes of networked responsiveness, from broadly inclusive peripheries to democratically simple cores. 

About the Author: Daniel Hutton Ferris is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. Their research “Centripetal Representation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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