Policy Point-Counterpoint: Should Political Representation in a Nation-State be Reserved only for Citizens, or should it Encompass all Residents regardless of Status within a National Polity?

AuthorDorfman, Ben

The question of political representation is a cornerstone of modern political theory. At the least implied since the seventeenth century by way of the work of Hobbes and Locke, it has been an increasing assumption since the Age of Revolution that all majority-age individuals should have their voices heard in political systems and that people should govern themselves. As any number of historians have noted, the growth of democracy is one of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' major trends. (1)

Two intersecting problems complicate representation: for whom and in what way? I.e., while most democracies are built off of universalistic principles, it is only recently that we have imagined "international constitutions" in the form of covenants that might guarantee freedoms to the person regardless of community membership. But do they? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) notes that "everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives."(2) While the general universalism of the Declaration would seem to suggest that all should be citizens, not everyone may have a nation or, as Hannah Arendt put it, a "community" in which they are sanctioned. (3) Or, if not that, many may live far from their home communities for a broad number of reasons and under a range of legal statuses vis-a-vis the country in which they reside.

In 2019, the U.S. brought the question of political representation to a head with the Trump administration's attempt to include a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. census ("Is this person a citizen of the United States?"). (4) Though defeated in the Supreme Court, the issue involved the U.S.' system of apportioning the number of representatives to states by way of the "whole number of persons in each state" (meaning not necessarily citizens). (5) Conservatives' concern was two things: either a) areas with large migrant populations might gain outsized influence or b) non-citizens might gain "stealth representation" as their interests would be part of a district's overall concerns, or be potentially seen as the panoply of issues to which representatives need to tend (when their right to be seen was less than that of the citizen). (6) This figures into a global picture accentuated by migration issues of which scholars have become increasingly aware: that there are determined stratifications between the rights of citizens and aliens who maintain a range of different statuses. (7) Who deserves representation, or to be at least be counted in representational systems, why, and under what circumstances?

This point-counterpoint features two perspectives. One, using social contract theory and liberal nationalism, argues "for the citizen." Investment in the social contract means the alienation of the self to a specific body (the national community in question). One has a right to expect the fullest range of returns on that investment and participate as fully as the next member in the self-determination of the nation. Absent that, citizenship is reduced in meaning or it is unclear as to why have citizenship at all. Indeed, how do we organize communities without concrete certifications and standards as to who qualifies for full-blown membership?

Alternatively, there is the universality of the person. Documents like the UDHR do not just prescribe rights for some, but civil rights should be provided for everyone, bar none. How can rights be guaranteed outside citizenship unless, at some level, all are heard or in some way counted in representational systems? Such is the argument of this debate's second piece: that the UDHR discusses "citizens" and their nations when it really meant we all might be citizens, or that no one should be left without say in those governments which govern them or that said governments might somehow "count" their presence.

In both positions, recognition is a driving concept. How might all be recognized in their humanity, yet recognition not be reduced for others or somehow taken away? As Axel Honneth put it, the "struggle for recognition" might be the "moral grammar of social conflict."(8) How do we measure our power relative to one another and be seen as fully as possible as members of social bodies as well as human beings?

Point: Political Representation in a Nation-State should be Reserved only for Citizens

For this debate, I will use social contract theory and liberal-nationalist theory to argue that political representation should be reserved for citizens and not include all residents regardless of status in a given state. To discuss this question, it is necessary to provide a definition of the concepts of political representation and citizenship. Representation is the act of making something present which is otherwise not. For it to be political representation, the representative makes citizens and their interests present in public policy. Representation in a political sense is a public and...

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