No one doubts that the representative system in many democratic countries is coming under increasing strain. To take only one example, the 2016 referendum vote in Britain to leave the EU (“Brexit”) underscores the fragility of the representative system both in that country and the EU. That the elected representatives in Britain decided to hold a referendum itself demonstrates the widespread belief that for many among the public the existing system of electoral representation in Britain was not sufficiently legitimate to carry the weight of such a foundational decision. The referendum itself revealed that the referendum majority in Britain differed dramatically from majority opinion among the democratically elected representatives. Nor did the elected representatives help the deliberation in the press and the country meet high deliberative standards. Many Brexit voters also considered laughable their “representation” in the EU. They believed that they and their country’s interests were not adequately represented in the EU and that insensitive bureaucrats in Brussels were harassing them with unjustifiable regulations. None of these weaknesses are surprises.
Britain may leave the EU, but it cannot return to the past. In the practice and theory of representation more generally it is also not possible to return to the past. I argue here that the very conceptions of representation forged in the eighteenth century are inadequate to the world of the twenty-first. Over the past century, human beings acting together have forged new practices that do not map easily onto the categories of earlier understandings of representation. New practices require new theories.
Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, is the author of Beyond Adversary Democracy, an empirical and normative study of face-to-face democracy, and the award-winning Why We Lost the ERA, a study of anti-deliberative dynamics in social movements based on organizing for an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She is also editor or coeditor of the volumes Beyond Self-Interest, Feminism,Oppositional Consciousness, Deliberative Systems, and Negotiating Agreement in Politics. She was President of the American Political Science Association in 2012-13. Her current work includes studies of representation, democratic deliberation, everyday activism, and the public understanding of free-rider problems.