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ECPR Journals Virtual Special Issue

The Flipside of Role Models: The Symbolic Representation of Class in Flanders

Policy Analysis
Political Leadership
Social Policy
Petra Meier
Universiteit Antwerpen
Petra Meier
Universiteit Antwerpen
Eline Severs
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

In this Paper, we caution against the dominant account in the literature on political representation that invariably treats political role models, such as female politicians or politicians with migration backgrounds, as assets to representation processes. We do not wish to contest the notion that they are valuable and may enhance trust in politics and political participation – and, thus, the inclusion – of historically disadvantaged groups. We, however, demonstrate the need to also consider the disciplining and restrictive impact they can have. While symbolising what a nation holds dearly, we argue political role models embody what is judged to be good, and, thereby, also evoke what is considered to be bad. This dual effect provides political role models with a disciplining impact. It also restricts the type and range of policy solutions that may be advanced. Their personal narratives and experiences fuel the position of privilege which symbolic orders occupy. Political role models may as such reify and amplify the dominant symbolic order; minimising the (discursive) space for credible alternatives to be heard. The Paper sketches how the embodiment of symbolic orders (symbolic representation) by political role models sets the stage for descriptive and substantive representation. It then turns to the psychological literature to broaden the focus on role models. We substantiate our argument through the use of a Flemish case, namely the appointment of Liesbeth Homans as Flemish Minister of Internal Affairs, Integration, Housing, Equal Opportunities and Poverty Reduction. Homans, a member of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, is known for her personal experiences with poverty. In the remainder of the paper we focus on how her past experiences with overcoming socio-economic destitution make her into a symbol of ‘responsible’ (deserving) citizens as opposed to ‘irresponsible (undeserving) ones), and how this shapes discourses and policies on poverty reduction.
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