The referendum in the Netherlands, which was brought into being in 2014, already ceases to exist. After realizing a long-standing plea of D66 (a democratic party, see video below), the current coalition, including that same party, reached a majority to cancel the referendum. And for three reasons, that is not so bad.
1. Neither public, nor government is omnicompetent
It has been over 90 years since Walter Lippmann published his book the Phantom Public. Among other things, he discusses a simple analogy: "If all men had to conceive the whole process of government all the time the world's work would obviously never be carried on. Men make no attempt to consider society as a whole. The farmer decides whether to plant wheat or corn, the mechanic whether to take the job offered at the Pennsylvania or the Erie shops" (Lippmann, 1925). In a representative democratic society, the person or people that we think should be at the wheel of the ship get elected, and they should be the ones that work conscientiously, and let themselves get informed by the people that know the most about the subjects that they need to make decisions about, or take stands in.
The common people in a direct democracy are in reality the slaves of ‘perverse demagogues’ who manipulate and flatter them.
The issue, however, is that people are not good at identifying correct political claims, and as a result get influenced by populist voices, such as Baudet's. And although these voices may very well appear more sovereign, even the Enlightenment philosophers had their doubts, they claimed that "... the common people in a direct democracy are in reality the slaves of ‘perverse demagogues’ who manipulate and flatter them" (Israel, 2011, p.815). Take the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, which was seen by many, including opponents such as #GEENPEIL, as a step towards Ukraine's membership of the EU. Proponents of the association agreement rejected (the severity of) the claims of the opponents, which led to a political discord. As a result, "[...] we have little chance of solving social problems and a good chance of creating or exacerbating them", says Michael Huemer (2010), professor at the University of Colorado. Take the Brexit as a point in case.
2. Who questions the surgeon?
The Brexit itself was a farce, disregarding what the outcome will be in the long run. The fact that, within 24 hours after the outcome, 1.2 million Leave voters (of an approximate total eligible voters of 45 to 50 million people) regretted their decision, should have been a final wake-up call that the average Joe and Jane—you and me included in many, if not most topics—are not capable of rationally voting on every single issue (e.g. the Brexit, the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, the independence of Catalonia, etc.), which is why we elect a parliament to do the governing for us.
In the words of Blommaert, recently following the thoughts of Karl Popper: "Who, in his defense of an open society, damages this society, is among the enemies of it." And anyone, who does not have in-depth knowledge about the issue at hand, can contribute to inflicting damage. The economist does not fix broken bones, and a carpenter does not look for extraterrestrial life. If insufficiently competent people want to have more say in the governmental procedures, they in the end, might hurt the democratic society. So, then why are people with no extensive knowledge about a topic, who have not been extensively researching the issues they claim the need to vote for, feel that they should be the ones to give 'advice' about governance?
3. When is the majority the actual majority?
A third reason why the workings of referendums can be questioned, is that people that feel that they lack the knowledge, and those who do not disagree with the issue at hand, among other reasons, tend to refrain from voting. In the Netherlands, the threshold for turnout for the referendum regarding the Ukraine was, and is for any other referendum in the Netherlands, thirty percent. In the case the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, the turnout was a little over 32 percent, of which 61 percent voted against. If the yes-voters would have stayed at home, the outcome would not have been valid. So, in this case, was a vote for 'yes' a vote for 'no'?
In the case of the Brexit, the turnout was much higher, 72 percent. The Leave voters won by a 3.8 percent margin, which might have turned out different if those 1.2 million mentioned above would had gotten a second chance to vote. In the case of Catalonia's independence, there was a turnout of 42 percent, of whom 90 percent favored a change in the governmental division of the Iberian peninsula. Looking at these numbers, taking into account those who did not cast their vote, the percentages of votes 'for the cause' (i.e. no association agreement between the Ukraine and the European Union, the United Kingdom leaving the EU, and Catalonia becoming independent), the results are approximately 20, 37 and 38 percent respectively. Not quite the majority. Mill, in his 1859 book 'On Liberty' discusses the 'tyranny of the majority': "The will of the most active part of the people; the majority; or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority" (Mill, 1859), which is what seems to be going on in the three cases mentioned. However, maybe we should speak of a 'tyranny of a minority' instead.
The referendum is gone, so what?
I am not dismissing the concept of a referendum; I can also think of reasons why a referendum could work. My main concerns remain however, and I would suggest changes, including raising the turnout threshold, so that the majority's voice is indeed heard. Another possible approach could be, like in France, to have a Two-Round system. People would have to vote twice, so they either would have time to think about their first vote, or the vote gets narrowed down to less options (i.e. usually the two most popular options from the first round go through to the final round). However, here we have to deal with the problem of low voter turnouts, and electoral absenteeism (Van Reybrouck, 2013). If referendums already struggle with reaching the threshold now, the feasability of a second round may be questionable, not even taking into account the extra costs that come with it. On the other hand, the outcome of the first voting round, may motivate people to let their voices be heard during the second round (as well).
There is no perfect answer, but as Van Reybrouck puts it: "Democracy is the least bad of all types of government. [One] which tries to find an equilibrium between legitimacy and efficiency" (2013, p. 13). But I wonder under which conditions a referendum is a legitimate solution to a political issue. In the Netherlands, a populist voice, or any other voice for that matter, able to raise 300,000 signatures (less than 2% of the population), would have been able to unchain the proceedings of a referendum, costing the government—and its tax payers—€42 million, not yet including the time spent debating the topic(s) afterwards. The referendum, as it was, was imperfect, said minister Kajsa Ollongren. However, the try-outs were quite interesting. Maybe another try-out could look like the G1000, where a randomly drafted representation of the citizens, much like in Athenian democracy, would debate a topic for which a referendum has been issued by an even larger group of the population. In such a case "[...] you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision" (Van Reybrouck, 2016).
D66-minister @KajsaOllongren verdedigt opnieuw afschaffing van raadgevend referendum. "Dit is een imperfect instrument. Als het niet goed werkt, trekken we het in." #referendumdebat #AD
— Peter Winterman (@WintermanAD) February 20, 2018
It seems that many people tend to think of abolishing the referendum as an arrow to the knee of democracy, especially Thierry Baudet of FVD (Forum voor Democratie), who, according to Maly (2018), aims for a direct democracy, rather than a representative one. In his attempt to change 'the party cartel' and normalize his radical ideology, the referendum is an interesting tool to present himself as 'a democrate'. In reaching his goal, "Baudet rejects radical labels, because he wants to normalize his beliefs" (Maly, 2018). Through this, we find in Baudet an aspect of Israel's quote from above: a 'demagogue' who manipulates.
However, even though Baudet is so worried about democracy in the Netherlands, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (2018), the Netherlands (8), as well as Spain (14) and the United Kingdom (11), are full democracies, with the Nordic countries, Ireland and Switzerland making up the top 7 of the West-European list. Taking Canada, Australia and New Zealand into account, pushes the Netherlands, Spain and the UK to the 11th, 19th and 14th spot. Still, even in countries that are (slightly) more democratic, referendums are uncommon or don't even exist. In the end, having a referendum can result in interesting insights for a government, the question is: when is it a deliberate option, and when is its outcome valid?
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Winterman, P. (2018, February 20th). D66-minister @KajsaOllongren verdedigt opnieuw afschaffing van raadgevend referendum. "Dit is een imperfect instrument. Als het niet goed werkt, trekken we het in." #referendumdebat #AD.