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Democratic representation and its crisis (1)

Prof. Dr. Paula Diehl (Chair of Political Theory, History of Ideas and Political Culture, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel)

Modern democracy is a political form characterised by representation and the principle of popular sovereignty. It relies both on the election of its representatives by the people and on the maturity of its citizens and is dependent on impulses from the people. A vibrant civil society ensures that democracy is revitalised time and again and that the political order adapts to social changes. Representation is at the heart of modern democracies, but it occurs in a constellation characterised by three peculiarities.

First, democratic representation requires that political representatives do not personalise or embody power. They can no longer stage themselves as a representation of power and embodiment of the people. This is because power does not belong to them, but to the people, who in democracy are seen as the political subject and collective actor. Secondly, the representation of the people is itself a difficult undertaking, because democracy recognises the diversity of society as one of its principles. This means that the people can no longer be symbolised as a homogeneous entity or body. There is therefore a tension between the formation of the people as a political subject and the representation of its heterogeneity, which makes a unified symbolisation of the people difficult. Thirdly, democracy requires that political representatives seek contact with citizens and take up the impulses from civil society in order to identify what the people need and want. There needs to be a lively exchange between representatives and the represented, between the state and civil society, in order to express and implement the will of the people.

But when this exchange is interrupted or becomes inconsistent, when the control mechanisms over the representatives no longer function and they claim power for themselves, and when the democratic configuration of political representation is no longer expressed, then there is a crisis of representation. Citizens turn away from politics, political institutions are no longer trusted, parties and politicians lose their credibility, and there is a feeling that political representatives have disconnected from the people they are obliged to represent. This is the breeding ground for anti-politics, populism, right-wing populism and extremism.

Representation as a testing ground for the crisis

The crisis is particularly visible in the symbolic dimension of political representation. Both democratising and anti-democratic concepts are “tested” in images, stagings and discourses. If they find resonance in the public and among the population, the situation can develop in one direction or the other. This is because symbols activate ideas about the political order, representatives, citizens, the state and also about how political institutions should function.

However, political representation is not only a task for office holders. Informal or non-elected representatives such as movement leaders, civil society actors or celebrities committed to a cause are also important for democratic representation. They all seek to influence collectively shared notions of politics. The political scientist Michael Saward has therefore spoken of political representation as “claim making “1. According to this, political representation is always (also) a symbolic act in which an actor (representative) claims to represent an idea, a group or a demand, regardless of whether he or she holds office.

However, it is not certain that representation succeeds. The audience of representation may well not recognise the representative, accept his claim to represent the group, or share the ideas of policy he expresses. For representation to succeed, political representatives must activate a sounding board among the addressees that is made to “resonate” through the symbols used.2 If this does not take place among office holders and elected representatives, there is a loss of credibility and the distance between government and civil society grows.

If this phenomenon does not occur in isolation, but affects established politicians and parties in general, we are dealing with a crisis of representation. Citizens no longer feel adequately represented, anti-political, populist and even anti-democratic movements emerge, but also the chance for re-democratising resources of politics and civil society to come to fruition. The study of the symbolic dimension of political representation can therefore both perceive warning signals of the crisis and provide insights into the resources for overcoming it.

Symbolic action and symbols in general are performative elements of policy-making. They are both a symptom of change and a shaping element of politics. They have the ability to express diffuse feelings, ideas and not yet rationally articulated thoughts and to give them an expressive existence. In this way, symbolic representation can introduce new visions of the political, make them imaginable for citizens or even modify traditional ideas of politics.3 If one wants to understand how modern democracy legitimises and changes, the analysis of symbolic representation is indispensable. Symbolic representation is the testing ground for crises in democracy.

But symbols are never unambiguous. While they go back to a common repertoire and to traditional patterns of symbol use, they remain ambiguous. The reason for this is that symbols can have multiple referents, that is, they can refer to several objects at the same time. An analysis of symbolic representation must therefore address several levels of meaning that are activated by the symbols.

Since symbols and symbolic actions are ambiguous mediators of visions, feelings and associations, they become important means of struggle in politics. This involves both changing the meaning of traditional and accepted symbols, i.e. “subordinating” other objects of representation to the already familiar ones, and introducing new symbols and meanings into the general repertoire and making them acceptable. The handling of the German flag is a good example of this struggle: the flag is a nation-state symbol, but after the National Socialist past, the totalitarian experience overshadowed the use of national flags in Germany. For a long time, private use was seen as a sign of radical right-wing sentiment. It was only after reunification and especially after the 2006 World Cup that the German colours found a place in the positive patriotic sentiments of the population. It was all the more disturbing when the representative of the far-right wing of the AfD, Björn Höcke, brought a German flag to a talk show. Public outrage was great, as the barely normalised use of the flag as a symbol of national identity came close to National Socialist paraphrases – after all, Höcke became known for paraphrasing Nazi mottos: for example, “1000 years of Germany” for “Thousand Year Reich”. Both Höcke’s gestures and the outrage of media and political representatives are part of a symbolic struggle to define the political and ultimately democracy. Both sides try to claim the German flag for themselves and to connote it differently. In the process, the flag never loses its reference to the German state and the German people. The struggle is over something else, namely how the German state and the German people are to be defined and how suitable representatives are to present themselves.

The symbolisation of the people and the self-staging of political representatives provide information about the political concepts and visions that are being tested in public. If they indicate personalisation of power and the embodiment of the people by political actors, parties or movements, or if they present the image of a homogenous and hermetic people, actors in politics and civil society are challenged to provide answers and enter the “symbolic battle”. Especially since modern democracy includes the principle of popular sovereignty, the maturity of citizens and a pluralistic conception of the people. If the definition of the people is closed to its heterogeneity or if the people and its power are embodied by a group or a person, democracy loses its symbolic basis.

(Translated by Thierry Simonelli)


  1. Michael Saward, The Representative Claim, New York 2010, insb. Kap. 2.
  2. Vgl. Gerhard Göhler, Politische Institutionen als Symbolsysteme, in: Heinrich Schmidinger/Clemens Sedmak (Hrsg.), Der Mensch – ein “animal symbolicum”? Sprache – Dialog – Ritual, Darmstadt 2007, S. 301–321, hier S. 312ff.
  3. Vgl. Paula Diehl, Repräsentation im Spannungsfeld von Symbolizität, Performativität und politischem Imaginären, in: dies./Felix Steilen (Hrsg.), Politische Repräsentation und das Symbolische. Historische, politische und soziologische Perspektiven, Wiesbaden 2016, S. 7–22.

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