The Complex Meaning Of Democracy


The 23rd of June 2016 referendum created a political earthquake in the United Kingdom. After a few months of easy slogans from all sides, the media suddenly started to talk about the complexity of the institution Britain had voted to leave and the extent to which Brexit would affect Europeans (including the British).

The international scope of the issue was seriously debated at last, and words such as “single market”, “European Health Insurance Card”, “EU funding”, “international students”, and even “Gibraltar” were thrust into the national headlines. For a Brexiteer seeking the so called “taking back control”, it probably must have been somewhat bizarre to witness the plunging pound, the Scottish refusal to leave the EU without another independence referendum, or the soaring popularity of Irish passports. However, despite the demonstrations, the petition to the House of Commons and the legal battle started by Gina Miller, the Brexit process was backed up by the “will of the British people”, which meant the decision was final.

It seems now that, after the triggering of article 50 , there is not much hope for the large number of people who voted to remain and will be forced to exit Europe with all its consequences. There is, though, some good news for those Remainers who are still crying about it: they are not the only ones who made a mess out of a referendum. Lately, we have seen the Colombian people voting against a peace agreement with the F.A.R.C and the Turkish people voting for abolishing the existing parliamentary system and implementing an executive presidency.

Also, after David Cameron’s resignation in June came Matteo Renzi’s in December, again because of the result of a referendum. But, why do these “democratic” referendums lead to the division of countries and, in some cases, the undermining of democracy itself? If democracy is the rule of the people, is it not right to ask the people directly whether they agree or not on a policy?

To answer these questions, it is useful to know a little bit more about the democratic system. Human societies have created and put into practice two types of democracy: direct and indirect. The first system entails a direct exercise of power, whereas the second aims to check and balance it. At first sight, it might seem that to participate regularly by giving your opinion on all sorts of political issues is far more satisfactory than just electing representatives once every five years.

However, it is a fact that direct democracies did not last long in the places where they were fully implemented (namely the Greek polis and the medieval communes). This failure is surprising because, as political scientist Giovanni Sartori points out, both the polis and the communes had the best conditions for the system to succeed.

Firstly, they had a reduced number of inhabitants (which made it relatively easy to vote in assemblies like the ekklesia in Athens). Secondly, the citizens lived in symbiosis with the polis, to which they were bound by a common destiny of life and death. These two facts should have promoted the success of direct democracy, and yet they did not prevent it from collapsing. The utopian idea of a self-governing society where citizens raised their hands to choose the policies they liked turned out not to be as desirable.

As explained by historian Fustel de Coulanges, the polis’ citizen had to give himself entirely to the state, with his blood in wars and his time in peace. He did not have freedom to leave aside public affairs and focus on private matters, as he had to work for the city at all times. If you think about it, to govern yourself means to live your entire life governing. From this conclusion one can understand that indirect democracy is not just a lighter type of direct democracy; it is its corrected version.

One of the various advantages of representative democracy in comparison to direct democracy is the political process by which decisions are taken. Parliamentary debate allows politicians to hear the different opinions about an issue and then reach a consensus to legislate. For example, in a debate on Brexit, the different parties in the House of Commons would be able to clarify what they like and what they don’t like about the EU, and to take action against what they dislike, rather than just discarding the institution as a whole. The minorities and the majorities would be represented, and such a complex and controversial issue would not be reduced to a question with only two prefabricated answers.

The consequence of proposing two simple options (remain or leave, nuclear or anti-nuclear, abortion or anti-abortion) is the creation of what is known as a zero-sum game. You either lose everything or win everything, and there is no room for negotiation or debate once the results come out. This is what caused the UK to divide after the referendum, and what created triumphant and absolute winners and hopeless losers.

We must now learn the lesson, and reflect whether referendums and direct democracies are as democratic as we think, and whether we should leave complex political issues to the “will of the people”.

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