Western societies understand themselves to be democracies, yet we rarely discuss what this means. Presumably, politics has to do with the people’s choices, and the act of voting is taken to be the ultimate democratic test of their adequate expression. Those societies, such as Switzerland, where referenda are commonly used to decide on how the country should act on a given issue are often seen to be particularly refined forms of democracy. It thus seems natural that the only possible way to resolve the question of whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the EU is to ‘put it to the people’. I want to argue that this is a mistaken view, which misunderstands the nature of our democracy. I will do so by drawing on the work of a somewhat neglected Dutch political thinker, Frank Ankersmit.

Often, when we speak about our societies as democracies we imagine them as descendants of the ancient Greek political system. But there is a danger of overlooking important historical differences. The polis practiced direct democracy, in which every (male, non-slave) citizen had a direct say in the running of the city-state. Ours are representative democracies where we elect particular individuals to engage in the process of decision-making for us. It is often assumed that this change was necessitated by states becoming larger and more populous, the face-to-face decision-making process being longer possible.

One political theorist, Frank Ankersmit, argues that the modern representative system is superior to direct democracy for our contemporary situation. He does so by looking at what is going on at the level of political representation. In order to understand this, he draws on what art theorists say about how artistic representation works. There are two main theories offered by the discipline of aesthetics. The first suggests that resemblance is what central to representation. But this conception is not very satisfying because no acceptable criteria have ever been put forward for what a successful resemblance might be. Paintings, as art historians will tell us, might resemble each other much more than they resemble the objects in the world that they depict. If we adhere to the resemblance theory in politics we will find that every difference between the electorate and its representatives is a case of political misrepresentation. From this point of view, what matters above all is how much the representatives in the parliament appear to look like the population at large.

Ankersmit is much more convinced by the substitution theory, advanced by Burke, Gombrich and Danto, among others. For them, representation is a making-present again of what is currently absent.  These aesthetic theorists stress that something original is going on in the process of artistic creation. Looked at from this perspective, without representation, there is no represented. That is, politically, without legislative bodies, there would be no nation as such. The very existence of representative institutions brings into being a political society, which would not exist otherwise. This theory further suggests that what is most important is the interaction between the represented and the representative, and in particular, that representatives should be in a position to transform the situation of which they are a part. Ankersmit argues that a politician must possess an ‘essentially aesthetic talent of representing political reality in new and original ways’. Politicians then, contrary to received wisdom on the issue, need to have a certain distance from citizens in order to be most effective. Conflicts that appear hopelessly irreconcilable at the level of the population (the represented) are often resolvable at the level of representation (political institutions). A great example in our time was the peace settlement in Northern Ireland. Direct democracy viewed from this perspective risks undermining political artistry. Constantly consulting the electorate can be a way of passing the buck to the population, a way of ‘doing something’ when nobody has the political inspiration needed to move forward. Arguably, this is the situation, in which we have found ourselves with the referendum on the British membership of the EU.

The role of political representatives is particularly important today, as many of the most important contemporary issues are ones about which people are conflicted. In the twentieth century, we had clear battles, such as capital versus labor. Today, many issues, such as environmental problems, are ones where most people suffer from the adverse effects they, themselves, cause. Ankersmit ultimately argues that what we need to do is make our political institutions more representative, that is, to widen the gap between the represented and the representatives so ‘that our legislative representatives be less responsive to the daily desires of their constituents and more attentive to the whole picture’. The great challenges of our era are unlikely to be solved by constantly asking the populace what they want. If a political solution is ever found for climate change, it will be among relatively small groups of people who have been delegated the power to make radical change and who will produce a document as utterly surprising as was the Good Friday Agreement. Asking the population what they want through plebiscites, Ankersmit argues, works well for very defined problems that are not linked to wider contexts. What residents would like for a particular locality is a fairly clear-cut and uncomplicated set of choices. For questions that are complex and interlinked with many other concerns, simplification will inevitably occur. Britain’s membership in the European Union is an immensely complex and many-sided issue. Yet the recent campaign in the UK became a referendum on immigration (despite the fact that non-EU immigration has been as high or higher than that originating from the EU in recent years) and an outlet for an associated general feeling that politicians are not addressing the situation of those in low paid and precarious jobs.

There was an almost perverse reaction among the electorate to the fact that many of the opinion-makers in society were in favor of remaining. So much so that we could say there was a rejection of politics as such. Indeed, the accusations of democratic failure, brought to bear on the European Union, could equally well be leveled at the British political scene. I would suggest that what is profoundly wrong at the moment with Western democracies is that the art of politics has been replaced by the technique of politics. For some time now, democratic struggles between divergent points of view in the national and international areas has been replaced by a coalescence around an agreed-upon set of ideas. Politics becomes a wrangling about implementation rather than a competition among fundamentally different ideas. We are now asked to vote for the best managerial team to achieve a set of goals that, with minor variations, both political sides are pretty much agreed on. Both in the EU and in the UK, there is a dearth of new ideas and a complete lack of political creativity. By default, the population was asked to decide on the future, but the vote and the debate that surrounded the referendum have still left much in the dark. The public has had its say and now , more than ever, we are in need of political artistry to find a way forward.