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Descriptive Representation as Challenge for Elites – The Citizens’ View

Contentious Politics
Democracy
Elites
Representation
Public Opinion
Lars Vogel
Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg
Sabrina Zajak
German Institute for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM)
Lars Vogel
Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg
Sabrina Zajak
German Institute for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM)

Abstract

Whom shall the elite represent? For a long time, the answer was “the people”, or the “common good”. This answer becomes more and more contested. Group belongingness is more and more considered as a cue for the validity of representative claims that elites’ make. Persistent underrepresentation of social groups in terms of their lower share among the elites compared to the population is increasingly considered as violating democratic equality and meritocratic allocation procedures. Feelings of political alienation and protest are increasingly linked to perceptions of insufficient symbolic representation and social exclusion of particular social groups among elites. Accordingly, the importance of descriptive representation as a normative yardstick is on the rise and along with it, the demand to increase the share of formerly underrepresented social groups within the elite. This however challenges the recruitment mechanisms of elites and established formal and informal ways by which the established elites control the access to their positions. The proposed paper investigates this challenge of descriptive representation for Germany’s elites by analyzing how public opinion perceives and supports descriptive representation in Germany. We analyze and compare the public perception of underrepresentation of two groups: citizens from Eastern Germany (former GDR) and immigrants resp. their descendants. Based on a novel data set comprised of about 5000 elite positions, consisting of comprehensive collection of publicly available biographical data, we estimate the amount of Eastern Germans among the elites as 9.8 percent compared to an amount of 19.4 percent among the population. The share of immigrants and their descendants equals 9.2 among the elites compared to 26 percent among the population. In addition, we conducted a population survey in 2019 that investigated normative and empirical assessment of Germany’s elites by citizens in order to measurehow citizens perceive and evaluate the underrepresentation of Eastern Germans and of immigrant and their descendants. We found that citizens are aware of the underrepresentation, evaluate it negatively, and connect it with feelings of deprivation. Our results show that t the achievement of descriptive representation is a challenge for established elites to maintain their legitimacy – which needs to be addressed.