What are the differences and similarities between descriptive representation and substantive representation?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

People are descriptively represented when their representatives are in some fundamental way like them.  We typically say that black people are descriptively represented when they are represented by a black person.  We might say women are descriptively represented when they are represented by women in the legislature.

By contrast, we say people are substantively represented when their ideas are represented in the government, regardless of what the person representing them looks like.  In other words, if I (as a mixed-race, middle class, straight male) am represented by a white, rich, gay woman, I am still substantively represented if she agrees with me on issues like the federal budget or the war in Afghanistan.

Clearly, these are very different ideas.  The one is based solely on people's demographic attributes.  The other focuses on their values and ideals.  The major similarity between these two is that people who are represented descriptively can also be represented substantively.  In addition, both ideas are based on the idea that people should have their interests represented in government.  That is, both are inherently democratic ideas.

mkoren's profile pic

mkoren | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

There are similarities and differences between descriptive representation and substantive representation. Descriptive representation is when an elected official represents people based on some characteristic or characteristics the elected official and the people he or she represents possess. An elected official who is Jewish may get elected because Jewish people would vote for him or her based on the religion of the elected official. This elected official would, in theory, support policies that Jewish people, including himself or herself, would support. The elected official may, for example, vote to support Israel in foreign policy or vote to support issues affecting Jewish people. Another example of this kind of representation is when an elected official votes to represent the interests of the area from which the elected official lives.

Substantive representation is when an elected official represents the people in the district no matter what the characteristics of the elected official are. If the people of a district want an elected official to vote for higher taxes on the rich, the official will do that even if the elected official is wealthy. In this situation, the elected official votes how the people want that person to vote regardless of the candidate’s own characteristics.

The similarity in each case is that the people do have representation in government determined by an elective process. If the people don’t like what the elected official is doing, they can vote that person out of office during the next election cycle.

herappleness's profile pic

M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Representation, under the perspective of political science, refers to the act of speaking up and acting upon the best interests of the constituents who voted for a specific leader. Constituents often vote for a representative based on their principles, ideals, action plans, and leverage in the community. However constituents also tend to vote for a representative (i.e., councilman, senator, major, governor, president, etc.) based on their superficial traits such as charisma, physical appearance, ethnicity, and even resemblance to some other person whom the voter connects to.

It is a sad reality but the latter type of voting does occur among voters who do not research their candidates and end up voting for a popular politician rather than for a good politician. This is when descriptive and substantive representation comes in.

Descriptive representation constitute a segment of politicians who represent the larger population from which they come. These are representatives that advocate in the name of a specific group or groups that are homogeneous to the background of the politician. Hispanics voting for Hispanics, etc.

Subjective representation would be the tendency to vote, through an informed process, by someone who represents the thoughts, ideals and principles that you as a citizen want to see safeguarded. For example, even though I am not gay and I am not HIV, I am very concerned as a citizen that the rights of these individuals are respected and I want to ensure that they are safe, regardless of our different backgrounds. Hence I would vote for a candidate with ideas similar to mine to ensure that this happens.


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