Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Referendums, populism and deliberative polling

Democracy is good. Churchill in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947: It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
And before that on 8 December 1944:  The ordinary man who keeps a wife and family, who goes off to fight for his country when it is in trouble, goes to the poll at the appropriate time, and puts his cross on the ballot paper showing the candidate he wishes to be elected to Parliament— he is the foundation of democracy. This man or woman should do this without fear and without any intimidation or victimization.

Democracy is good. The ultimate in democracy are referendums. So referendums are the ultimate good.
Are they?
In theory yes, in practice no. Everything under the sun has its conditions. Conditions to exist, and conditions to exist well. If I look at the Brexit-referendum and before that the Ukraine-referendum in the Netherlands, I see a fundamental weakness and a fundamental error.

The fundamental weakness was the lack of a sturdy, disciplined public debate. When that is not in parliament, where is it? In the newspapers, on radio and television, on the internet. The problem is that very few media are geared to non-partisan debate. Most media are either partisan or commercial and so geared to sales and not to debate. And how to make a debate so lively and so interesting that it is followed and echoed in homes and public places?

Somehow, politicians consider referendums not sexy, like elections or parliamentary debate. Also interesting how abstract and far were the arguments for against how lively and near were the arguments against.

The only solution I know that directly addresses this problem is the 'deliberative polling' (google that!), in a sense the return of ancient Athenian democracy. Representatives are drawn by lot, like in a jury. They get full access to interest groups and to expert opinion. And the deliberations are public. Anyway, talk shows are not enough, especially when politicians are lukewarm for a fight outside parliament.

The fundamental error is to submit foreign policy issues to a referendum. Imagine asking the workers in a factory to vote on sales strategy. They should vote on production matters, if anything. In referendums, people shouldn't vote on foreign issues but on domestic issues.
No one in his right mind would ever suggest to have the Home Office absorb the Foreign Office. Though once I heard a human resources manger advocate that sales should be under human resources, because both were about people.
Don't treat external matters as internal matters.

Referendums try to involve citizens in politics, as citizens have distanced themselves form politics in recent years - or rather: recent decades. Confidence in politics, politicians and political parties has diminished. But going to the ballot box on referendum day is attracting smaller crowds, not larger crowds. We can't blame people for that. We let them vote on complex issues, without committed champions with a compelling story on both sides of the issues.

When we want more direct democracy, we need not less, but better populism, as the Belgian David Van Reybrouck argues convincingly in, among others, Tegen Verkiezingen (against elections). It starts with preparing referendums better: stronger debate, about domestic issues.

Referendums are no escape for lazy politicians. They heat up politics. They should.

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