The Democratic Ideal in Light of the Brexit
The day after the “Brexit”-referendum, with a majority of 51.9% voting to leave the European Union, some speak of the success of democracy (“the people have spoken”). Already, there are calls for referenda in other countries to let the people speak there, too. This suggests that independently of our own opinion on the matter, we should be celebrating the referendum as an exercise of direct democracy. Is it worth celebrating, however?
Democracy is often seen as an ideal, and its exercise as bestowing legitimacy on decisions made in a democratic manner. It does depend on our understanding of democracy whether that is indeed the case. Aristotle (and Plato) defined democracy as decision-making by the majority for the benefit of the majority, rather than for the benefit of all. They understood democracy in a way that we could call tyranny by the majority. This, they considered to be unjust, while decisions taken by many for the benefit of all were the right form of government by majority.
I do not want to discuss the question whether in case of the British referendum, the decision was actually for the benefit of the (slim) majority, or for the benefit of all. Rather, I want to discuss how the decision was taken. Did the British try to take a decision that would benefit all of them? I doubt it, for the following reason: instead of a discussion on benefits and disadvantages of a potential (and now very real) exit, the weeks leading up to the referendum featured misinformation, a strong disregard for the opinion of experts, outright lies and arguments primarily geared at engaging people emotionally – by making them fear an exit, or by making them fear what would (continue to) happen if they remain. This kind of argumentation is unlikely to lead to a decision that is (intended to be) for the benefit of all, instead of only for the benefit of those actually in favour of the final decision.
Returning to Plato and Aristotle, they thought a just system of governance was one in which citizens would participate in deliberative and judicial offices and be actively involved in governing, making decisions for the benefit of all. This system was, admittedly, built on the backs of disenfranchised groups: slaves, women, etc., but we can nevertheless learn from the ideal of the citizen at the time and expand that to all of us. What mattered for citizenship in the sense of participation was rational and deliberative faculty: the possibility, in short, to make smart and informed choices.
Today, we know better than to believe that certain classes or people of certain genders are by virtue of their class or gender incapable of making those kinds of choices, but what is required is that we give people the opportunity to make such choices, and that we take this opportunity when it is given to us. If we want to make choices for the benefit of everyone, we need to make them in an informed manner, which means that we need to have the time, energy, education and information required to distinguish between arguments as to what will benefit all of us from misinformation, outright lies, false claims and fear-mongering.
In order for our democracies to be worth something, we need more focus on broad education, not only for elites, people of one or the other skin colour, with a particular amount of wealth or property, or of a particular gender, but for everyone. This is something the state must offer to all individuals. We need a strong media that accurately and clearly presents facts and arguments, rather than playing on emotions and using the clickbait-equivalent of reporting. Lastly, we need individuals to make the effort to use their rational faculties and to make use of the information and education that media and state have to offer. We need to become more emancipated, involved and enlightened.
Looking at the Brexit debate, but also the campaign process leading up to presidential elections in the United States of America and the rise of nationalist and right-wing parties across Europe, what we need is a new enlightenment. This is not a novel claim, and it is idealistic, but in light of recent events, it bears repeating. Without this new enlightenment, the democratic value of decisions like the Brexit is not something worth celebrating.