Speaking for Others: The Ethics of Informal Political Representation

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2024)
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A political philosopher dissects the duties and dilemmas of the unelected spokesperson, from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Greta Thunberg. Political representation is typically assumed to be the purview of formal institutions and elected officials. But many of the people who represent us are not senators or city councilors—think of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malala Yousafzai or even a neighbor who speaks up at a school board meeting. Informal political representatives are in fact ubiquitous, often powerful, and some bear enormous responsibility. In Speaking for Others, political philosopher Wendy Salkin develops the first systematic conceptual and moral analysis of informal political representation. Salkin argues that informal representation can be a political lifeline, particularly for oppressed and marginalized groups that are denied representation in formal political institutions. Yet informal political representatives exert outsized influence over the ways these groups’ interests are understood by the public, without the represented having much recourse to hold them accountable. And many informal political representatives are selected not by the groups they represent but by outsiders, sticking these groups with representatives they would not choose but cannot shake. The role of informal political representatives is therefore fraught with moral questions. What exactly are their duties and to whom are they owed? Should they be members of the groups they represent? When is informal representation permissible and when is it best avoided? Informal political representation is taking place all around us. In fact, you yourself may be an informal political representative without knowing it. Speaking for Others explores the tensions central to this pervasive yet underexamined practice, bringing light to both its perils and its promise.

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Wendy Salkin
Stanford University


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