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Representing Silence in Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 July 2020

University of York
Professor, Department of Politics, University of York,


Democratic representation focuses on voice: it conceives voice as that which is represented and as the prime mode of representing. This article argues that this focus is problematic and turns instead to silence to ask a fundamental question: Can representation empower citizens from their silent positions? I approach the question in three parts. First, I offer a new conceptualization of silence, arguing that silence is best understood as the site of a potential or actual presence. Second, I use criteria of domination and displaced involvement to assess attempts to enfranchise silence within the transmission-belt model of representation. Third, I critically engage and strengthen constructivist views of representation by developing these criteria to assess the legitimacy of claims to represent—speak about and for—silent constituencies—namely, the claim to represent an (alleged) silent majority.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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Research for this paper has been funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship for a project on The Politics of Silence (MD 160009). Earlier versions of the paper have been discussed in the White Rose Political Theory Workshop and in the Edinburgh Political Theory Research Group. I amgrateful for the comments and suggestions provided by participants at both events. I am especially indebted to my colleagues, Neil Carter, Mihaela Mihai, Mathias Thaler, Filipe Carreira da Silva, and Matthew Festenstein for feedback on the paper. Finally, I would like to thank the APSR reviewers for their time and careful reading. Their questions, comments, and suggestions have helped me clarify my argument and improve the paper.



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