Descriptive Representation: Understanding the Impact of Identity on Substantive Representation of Group Interests

Michele L. Swers and Stella M. Rouse

in The Oxford Handbook of the American Congress

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199559947
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks of American Politics

Descriptive Representation: Understanding the Impact of Identity on Substantive Representation of Group Interests

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Since 1992, the U.S. Congress has experienced dramatic change in the demographic makeup of its membership. While Congress is dominantly a male, white institution, the creation of majority-minority districts in the early 1990s resulted in the election of African-Americans and Hispanics to Congress. 1992 also saw the rise of an increased participation of women in Congress, particularly Democratic women, and this number has increased steadily over the years. The expansion of minority and female representation still continues at a slow pace. The electoral advantage of the incumbents presents a stumbling block on the advancement of new groups into the institution. Moreover, to date, few minority legislators have been elected from districts that do not contain a high percentage of minority constituents. Furthermore, women in the profession of politics often express a lack of interest in running for office and they are often subjected to the effect of “career ceilings”. While women and minorities remain underrepresented in Congress, some individual legislators have achieved seniority and enough political clout necessary to move into leadership positions. Among them is Nancy Pelosi who became the Speaker of the House in the Eleventh Congress and James Clyburn, an African-American who served as Majority Whip. This article examines theoretical expectations on the importance of descriptive representation. It evaluates empirical evidence on the impact of race, gender, and ethnicity on the behavior of legislators. The article concludes with a discussion on the important avenues for future research as the level of diversity in Congress increases and more women and minorities enter the ranks of committee and party leadership.

Keywords: U.S. Congress; majority-minority districts; representations; descriptive representation; race; gender; ethnicity; behavior of legislators; party leadership

Article.  14040 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; US Politics ; Political Institutions

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