Why not a referendum? Look at the polls!

OK, I know this is not very ‘democratic’ but I am happy that someone opened up the debate on the limits of participatory democracy. Lately, the idea of holding a referendum is often presented as THE one and only democratic instrument that we have (especially by Madame Royal). Strangely enough, only relating to EU issues, never because of domestic policies. Anyway,  after the failed referenda on the EU constitutional treaty in France and the Netherlands, we could clearly see in what kind of mess you can run with holding a referendum with uninformed people that lost trust in their national politicians.  (hope this is enough provocation for some mean comments!)

So, here is some food for thought from Michel Godet via eurotopics:

If we are not careful, participatory democracy may consecrate the triumph of self-interest in the short-term (the only unfair inequalities are those that we do not benefit from!) at the expense of long-term collective interest. The courageous decisions to be taken regarding the future are rarely consensual and if forecasting needs be participatory, the strategy that it inspires is up to the elected members of Parliament. It is up to them to demonstrate will power and courage in order to avoid participatory demagogy.

Here the link to the original article in French: Démocratie ou démagogie?

5 Comments

  1. I am going to give a mean comment :-) I didn’t read the original article, but I guess I know what’s it going to be about. If you’re dissatisfied with a democratic decision, it’s always easy to blame it on ‘the uninformed’ people and complain that it was a decision in favor of “self interest in the sort-term” instead of “collective interest in the long-term”. And of course, people can take wrong decisions, even majorities can take wrong decisions, but the question is; what is the alternative? Calling for “courageous decisions” simply means calling for decisions against the will of the majority, and reminds me of the kind of rhetoric totalitarian dictators like to use to sanctify their power.
    Don’t put up a smoke curtain like it’s a matter of choosing between ‘participatory democracy’ versus ‘representative democracy’. You know very well that democracy means that the majority of the population as a whole should have the ultimate decision-making power. A parliament is an instrument invented for pragmatic reasons, not for ideological ones. A lot of philosophers and statesmen throughout the ages have argued against democracy as such, so at least you do have some sort of a case there, but then at least be honest about it and simply say that you’re against democracy because you think most people are too stupid to decide, and that you would prefer some kind of ‘enlightened elitocracy’ (preferably with yourself in a dominant role).

  2. Thanks for the nasty comment. ;-) To make it clear: There is no alternative to democracy. A system called ‘enlightened elitocracy’ (nice term, by the way!) would always lead into an authoritarian system or a dictatorship, so that is would be no alternative (even with me in a dominant role!). So, I totally agree with you. The problem in my opinion is rather the unfamiliarity with participatory elements in many countries which causes all this controversies. As long as these elements are not part of every day life, I doubt that referenda on things like the Constitutional Treaty bare any significance.

  3. Referendums can, without any doubt, be used in a very dangerous way, especially when control over them is in the hands of the politicians themselves, like in France. It’s much better when, like on the Swiss federal level, only citizens can initiate a referendum (or an initiative), and determine the question.
    The unfamiliarity with direct democracy certainly is, or can be, a problem, but the only solution is to make people more familiar with it. There was a lot of criticism on the referenda in France and the Netherlands because people would have voted against (or in favor) of the treaty because of domestic reasons, but then the solution should be to have referenda on domestic issues as well, not to abolish them altogether. If you have to shut up for four or more years and then you get one opportunity to speak, you try to say as many things at the same time as possible…

  4. If the news of the world is to be believed today http://www.newsoftheworld.co.uk/story_pages/news/news4.shtml , the labour party, and Tony Blair in particular, is concentrating on taking as far into Europe as possible without having a referedum, despite this being promised. In view of the fact that most politicians started life as “simple people” who supposedly could not understand the finer points of democracy, what trust can we have in the fact that as politicians they are any better informed.

    Where I personally think that the current round of referenda is running into trouble is not so much to do with people being uniformed. I believe that in prior years and structural work on the EU since its inception, politicians paid insufficient attention to whether their decisions either had the support of, or were in the interest of their voters. However, they failed to ask at that time. It would seem to me that the current problem is that the voters are saying enough is enough, you politicians need to listen to us.

    the Brit

  5. I think the newsoftheworld article is misleading and just reaffirms the low quality of the paper. A more detailed comment by nosemonkey:
    http://www.jcm.org.uk/blog/2007/02/25/blair-and-the-eu-constitution
    I do agree with you that politicians failed to communicate the EU properly in prior years but I do not think referenda would have always solved this problem.

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