One argument against the recent Brexit referendum circulating has been that it never should have happened because we have elected representatives whose job it is to make these important decisions. As such they are better equipped to engage with the nuances of policy. While this seems to make sense at face value, there are a few threads that, if pulled, unravel this argument for me.
First, the decision to hold the Brexit referendum was a policy decision! And for those of you who don’t already know, it was a political maneuver orchestrated by David Cameron, meant to unite conservative factions within parliament. So my question is, where were these qualified policy makers when this decision was made? If citizens were unqualified to vote on this issue (which seems to be the attitude for those on the losing side), what does that mean for the legislators who thought, in their “expert opinion”, citizens were qualified?
Consider that “experts” who pushed a policy of deregulation that heavily contributed to the financial crisis.
I don’t see expertise. I see special interests.
Bourdieu and Wacquant described how “economic or mathematical language [is] used to justify policy choices made on decidedly non-technical grounds.” Economists are wielded like hammers to bludgeon ideology, and worse, into our lives.
Consider the lack of effective climate change policy across democratic states. Most of it is simply half measures informed by political and economic interests. The Paris Agreement, which has been held up as the most important political decision made in this regard, is vague and difficult to imagine as actionable. Arguably, this is the reason why it even gained the support it did. How many years has this been the case now?
In an ideal world, our representatives would be great policy makers, but we interact with the world as it is, not how we wish it to be.
This brings me to my point in my last post that we should consider other forms of democracy. I fear that the negative rhetoric around referendums only causes us to circle the wagons around the people and institutions who are to blame for the Brexit mess.
Hopefully we don’t look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo and say “Well, democracy doesn’t work.” Likewise, we shouldn’t look at a poorly executed referendum as proof that all referendums are bad. As George Orwell aptly described in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” words often carry diverse definitions and this murkiness is used for political manipulations. It is in the best interest of political elites for us to shun all forms of referendums.
In my last post., I argued that deliberative democracy (DD) is a better way to augment referendums, but as some are quick to point out, citizens are generally ignorant on most policy. But what if we could find out what positions an informed populace would take?
DD methods provide a framework whereby citizens can deliberate on policy issues. Specifically, a stratified random sample of citizens, based on key population indicators, are provided with a wide selection of policy briefs and access to relevant policy makers. Moderators then guide citizens through deliberative sessions where diverse opinions coalesce to create policy recommendations. These policy recommendations can then be voted on in a referendum.
Had the idea of leaving the EU been put through the DD process, it is very likely that the issue would have never even made it to a referendum. This is due to the effectiveness of DD in modifying citizen opinions and can be effectively measured in a number of ways. (see also)
One advantage of DD methods is that it carries a level of trust that is not afforded legislators or other policy makers. DD can potentially sate the bloodlust of an angry citizenry as they see people similar to them coming to reasonable policy decisions. Governments get what they pay for with DD, and when effectively harnessed, it has the potential to modify the attitudes of citizens at large.
Admittedly, deliberative democracy has some kinks to work out. Time is necessary to further develop it as a potential mainstream democratic institution. But it is a way forward.