Friday, 15 July 2016

Europe will referenda itself to death

From Budapest to Paris to Cleveland, the West‘s blind idolatry of direct democracy will be its own undoing. 

"The referendum is a device of dictators and demagogues," declared UK prime minister Clement Attlee in 1949. No surprise, then, that Europe’s next anti-EU referendum following Brexit has been called by Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The Hungarian prime minister’s absolute control over the political, judicial and media institutions in his country have been likened by many to the power of a dictator, including by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

Hungary has attracted particularly negative international attention because of its brutal treatment of Syrian refugees trying to cross through the country to Germany. It is the latter issue that has prompted the referendum, scheduled for 2 October. 
As part of an effort to get control over the refugee crisis, the European Union agreed to a quota system to spread the Syrian refugees across the 28 EU member states. 

Hungary and some other Eastern European states were against the measure, but were outvoted in the European Council. The Council is essentially the EU’s senate, made up of one representative from each member state.  

Hungary’s contribution would be 1,294 refugees, out of the total 160,000 to be settled throughout the EU. Orban has refused to accept the result of the vote. In order to pressure his EU counterparts he has called a public poll of Hungarians on whether or not the country should abide by the agreement. The question will read: 
"Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?" 
Whether the Hungarians realize it or not, this is in a way a referendum on EU membership. Much like pseudo-EU-member Switzerland’s referendum in 2014 on whether to put a cap on immigrants from the EU, the question on the ballot is, 'should we abide by our EU obligations, or refuse to play by the rules?'

For Americans, think of it this way. It’s as if a senator from Alabama didn’t like the fact that Obamacare passed by a majority vote in the US Senate, so he went home and had the governor call a referendum on Obamacare in Alabama. The problem is, it’s not Alabama’s decision to make. It’s a competence of the federal government. So the governor couldn't make good on the promise offered in the referendum, unless he took his state out of the union.

Populism run amok 

Referenda can be useful tools for political manipulation by politicians. In this instance, Orban is using it to put pressure on his counterparts in the Council, even though it would be illegal for him to implement any result that refuses the mandatory resettlement. In the case of Brexit, Cameron took a gamble hoping that a no result in a referendum would head off an electoral threat from the far-right. Former London Mayor (and now foreign secretary) Boris Johnson wanted to manipulate the referendum for his own personal political gain.

But referenda are dangerous tools to play with, as Cameron has learnt. Few in Hungary want to leave the EU, given that it is the second biggest net recipient of EU funds. Orban has never even suggested such an idea. And yet offering the people a direct choice to subvert EU law could set in a process in motion which sees Hungary leaving the EU. It’s a dangerous game.

The ridiculously loaded question being put to Hungarians is sadly par for the course as referenda go. They are usually worded to be either loaded or incomprehensible. 

Just look at the recent referendum in the Netherlands on whether Ukraine should have a free trade association agreement with the EU. The idea of putting such a thing to a referendum in one country is absurd, but far-right leader Geert Wilders and others were able to manipulate a new law put in place by the Dutch government making it easy to force referenda. The populists used it as an anti-EU vote, and few cast their vote based on the actual issue on the ballot.

In the end, a majority of the 32% of Dutch people who turned out voted to kill the EU-Ukraine agreement, creating a huge headache for the Dutch government and the EU (not to mention stabbing the long-suffering people of Ukraine in the back).

I've long argued that referenda are dangerous for people, especially minorities, as evidenced by the raft of anti-gay referenda in the United States the 2000s. They frequently yield racist, xenophobic results, as in referendum-obsessed Switzerland. They are usually decided based on issues that have nothing to do with the question being posed, as in Ireland's first rejection of the Lisbon Treaty

Or they ask questions that are ridiculously confusing and meant only to absolve politicians of responsibility, as with Alexis Tsipras's bailout referendum last year. The looming threats of referenda across Europe have paralysed Brussels in trying to act to solve the euro crisis over the past six years.

People think they want choice

The referenda have been at best counter-productive, at worst disastrous. And yet, ask anyone on the street if they think they should be given a vote on issue x, y, or z, and they will always say yes. It's the way we have been taught in the West - more democracy is always better democracy.

But is it? 

It's a subject rarely broached in our Western societies, but after the rise of Brexit and Trump, people are finally starting to ask the question.

In his explosive cover story for this month's Atlantic magazine, Jonathan Rauch explains "How American Politics Went Insane". It was not through the subversion of democracy as we often hear by the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. No, he argues, it was rather through over-democracy.
"Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death," he writes. "Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick."
As the ultimate example of this, he cites the reforms which opened up the choice of selecting political parties' nominees to a public vote. It was this well-meaning reform, intended to eliminate the "smoke-filled rooms" where party bigwigs chose their nominees as recently as a few decades ago, that has made the election process so long, so circus-like, and so vulnerable to populist exploitation. 
"The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics. Our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump."
The practice of choosing party leaders by public vote has never been copied in any other modern democracy...until now.

France, you're about to make a big mistake

Incredibly, both of the main French political parties are about to open their candidate selection process to an American-style primary process.

I cannot imagine what about America's two-year-long circus of populism and demagoguery looks appealing to the French. Perhaps the news media are pushing for it because it makes for great TV. But it certainly doesn't make for great democracy.

The French presidential election is scheduled for nine months from now, in April 2017. You'd be forgiven for not knowing that (perhaps even if you are French), because the French have not begun discussing the election in earnest yet.

Unlike in the United States, where the presidential campaigns begin two years before the election, French campaigning begins just two months before. This is in line with how most of the world's democracies conduct their elections.

What's gone wrong in the United States to create these absurdly-long campaigns that everyone says they hate? Public primaries. It expands the politicking by at least a year if not more, and turns the contest into a kind of giant game show. 

Into the fray have stepped shysters and self-promoters, using the highly-publicized contests to flog their books or secure lucrative talking head gigs on Fox News. There were 28 candidates in the Republican primary this time around.

Les Republicains, the new name of Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP (again, why are the French insistent on copying everything bad about America?) will hold their first primary in November, six months before the election. That will guarantee intensive French media coverage from...well right about now, really. The terrorist attack last night in Nice will only up the stakes. 

Once the people have been given this vote, you can't take it away. The democracy will have to become more and more direct. The primaries will become longer and louder, and people will come to view them as official state elections even though they are actually just private selections organised by the parties. Just look at how this has developed in the US, and the public's misunderstanding of what a primary vote is.

France already has its own more-coherent version of Donald Trump. Her name is Marine Le Pen. Public polling says it is a real possibility she could win the presidency next year. But here's the crucial difference: she is running as part of the far-right Front National, a party that has been around in France for decades. Someone like her has been unable to infiltrate the mainstream parties, because the leaders of those parties choose their own nominees. 

What happens if these nomination processes are suddenly opened up to public votes? It is not difficult to see a situation where a Marine Le Pen, or perhaps worse, secures the centre-right nomination.

Perverted democracy

Whether they are old (France, UK, US) or young (Germany, Italy, Poland), the founding fathers of our democracies put in checks and balances against this kind of excess. In the United States, we have set about dismantling these checks over the past 30 years. 

In Europe, governments are increasingly bypassing the systems set up by their founding fathers. They are giving in to populist impulses and using referenda as tools to abdicate responsibility or escape blame. Europe is new to this game. I would advise them to look at what has gone wrong over the past three decades in the United States and think hard about whether they want to repeat those mistakes. 

Attlee was right when he said that referenda are the tool of demagogues and dictators. Or, perhaps more precisely, they can easily give rise to demogogues and dictators. As can all forms of direct democracy. Rauch concludes that even though it may not be pretty, the smoke-filled room provided a necessary check on the impulses of the mob.

Those checks are cracked. And if you want to think about where this can lead, in Europe or in the Americas, I would urge you to read Andrew Sullivan's piece for the New Yorker from May, 'Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic'.

He quotes a passage from the 1935 novel 'It Can't Happen Here' that is still haunting me. In it, Sinclair Lewis wrote about what would happen if fascism, as it was then spreading across Europe, were to triumph in America. 
The imagined American fascist leader — a senator called Buzz Windrip — is a “Professional Common Man … But he was the Common Man ­twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.” 
He “was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic.” “ ‘I know the Press only too well,’ ” Windrip opines at one point. “ ‘Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest … plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks.’ ” 
He is obsessed with the balance of trade and promises instant economic success: “ ‘I shall not be content till this country can produce every single thing we need … We shall have such a balance of trade as will go far to carry out my often-criticized yet completely sound idea of from $3000 to $5000 per year for every single family.’ ” 
However fantastical and empty his promises, he nonetheless mesmerizes the party faithful at the nominating convention (held in Cleveland!): “Something in the intensity with which Windrip looked at his audience, looked at all of them, his glance slowly taking them in from the highest-perched seat to the nearest, convinced them that he was talking to each individual, directly and solely; that he wanted to take each of them into his heart; that he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.”  
And all the elites who stood in his way? Crippled by their own failures, demoralized by their crumbling stature, they first mock and then cave. As one lone journalist laments before the election (he finds himself in a concentration camp afterward): “I’ve got to keep remembering … that Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy — oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another … We had it coming, we Respectables.”

Reading this passage sent a chill down my spine. And with our blind pursuit of direct democracy, we are creating the perfect conditions for the coming Windrip.


Peter said...

Aaaagh! Attack of the blondes!!!

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