The Missing Factor in Direct Democracy is Enlightened Leadership

'I’ve got one decision, and that is, who I’d like to be in charge making decisions.’ Comedians, the good ones at least, are often the most prescient commentators on current affairs, and this line by Jason Manford on Have I Got News for You last week captured a widespread frustration. Referendum D-Day looms noisily, but blanket coverage is not disguising patchwork arguments. As both sides, cheered on by a bewildered media, continue to offer shaky economic forecasts and populist simplifications, people can hardly be blamed for feeling circumspect about voting. The public is consulted next to never: why are they suddenly thrown in the deep end now?

Ironically, this sentiment comes at a time when calls for more direct access to political participation have been growing. Polls in many Western countries show that citizens are increasingly frustrated by the corporate and vested forces which liberal democracy seems unable to tackle. Protests in the aftermath of the financial crisis have, according to some narratives, morphed into a growing cleavage along lines of class and mobility: the urban, globalized elite versus the traditional, nationalist ‘have-nots’. In this context, the idea of a more direct democracy as a solution to the broken system of representative democracy is a common refrain.

Taken together, these two currents could lead one to believe that society is either highly confused or, as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man put it, highly ‘ungrateful’. We lament a lack of leadership while calling for less power for elected leaders; we want statesmanlike vision in a media environment of instant updates. Whether these are the legitimate desires of an increasingly engaged citizenry or the whims of an entitled generation is a matter of speculation. It is true that technology has given us increased access to information and political ideas while not yet giving us better channels for real participation. But studies have also shown that the seemingly limitless horizons offered by the Internet can lead to unrealistic expectations.

not a panacea for bullshit-avoidance

I live in Switzerland, which is often held up as a shining example of a well-run system of direct democratic efficiency: a sort of ‘super-democracy’, if you believe the recent ‘Brexit: The Movie’. Last weekend, the Swiss voted for the second time in four months, on a range of issues: a reform of the federal asylum law, how to fund road construction, and (at the local level) a proposed tunnel under Lake Geneva to ease traffic congestion. The campaigns, despite some cartoonish posters reminiscent of wartime propaganda, were marked by sober and rational deliberation, both in the media and in politics. Citizens receive a package of detailed information about the proposal by post, do their homework, and vote.

This said, the system is not a panacea for bullshit-avoidance. Owing to the frequency of votes and the ability to force your way on the agenda by collecting over 100,000 signatures, populist initiatives and flaky ideas slip through. This time, the example was an admirably progressive one: a much-publicized vote to confer a universal basic income of 2,500 CHF per month to each citizen. After a campaign marked more by attention-grabbing coups than concrete debate (perhaps a deliberate strategy by the organizers, who knew it would not succeed) the initiative was swept aside by pragmatic voters who punished the lack of detail.

the missing factor in all of this seems to be some form of enlightened leadership

A system which can allow such ideas to be aired in the public sphere is surely welcome. Yet the same system necessarily also allows for more sinister projects to force their way onto the agenda: in February, an initiative to deport foreigners convicted of crimes such as traffic offenses was narrowly defeated. In 2009, a vote banned the construction of minarets in Swiss villages. And in 2014, another initiative to reduce the amount of foreigners entering the country has led to fierce disputes with the EU, which rightly claims that the law violates the freedom of movement principle which Switzerland - as a member of Schengen - is bound to respect. The Swiss authorities are currently scrambling to secure an alternative framework agreement with Brussels which would cause minimum disruption; something which a post-Brexit UK can also expect.

Some in Switzerland have talked about reaching the ‘limits of democracy’. If the danger of the representative model is the tyranny of the majority, a corresponding danger of the direct variant is the tyranny of the few. Voters have proven sensible enough not to be swept away by every proposal, but the fact that these marginal ideas find their place so frequently on the table is a powerful way of shifting the narrative and public mood. Of course it is vital that contrarian views find their place in the public debate. But habit breeds acceptance - just look at how quickly Donald Trump has moved from being an outrageous joke candidate to a viable presidential candidate. This has nothing to do with the quality of his ideas. We simply see him every day.  

As much as I dislike admitting it - mainly because of a distrust of ‘strongmen’ and a disdain for the burgeoning ‘leadership industry’ - the missing factor in all of this seems to be some form of enlightened leadership. In Switzerland, the counter-argument to populist ideas is rational and sensible facts: thus far, non-extremist politicians have not succumbed to entering a race to the bottom. But elsewhere, including in Britain, this is where the debate seems headed. On the same episode of Have I Got News for You last week, Labour MP Jess Phillips explained why she was voting to remain in the EU: ‘mainly because of the people that are on the outside - do you want to be on the same side as Nigel Farage and George Galloway?’ This is not an argument. If you want to give people the chance to vote more, you need the courage to give them the right information to do so.

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