Sometimes it takes a mirror image to see our own condition more clearly. Having just read about the European Union’s states experiment with various forms of direct democracy, I began to reflect about our own.
The EU members have several ways of accepting, or rejecting, changes to their constitution. Last June Ireland’s referendum on the subject failed, and it was said that the no votes could mean the end of the Union. Since, various European leaders have been looking for ways to redo or rethink the Ireland experience. Meanwhile, the whole idea of referenda and what they mean is also being talked about. One reason is because it is not uniform. There are four models.
- States where voters can call for a referendum and its results are binding for the government: Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy and Denmark
- States where the referenda have to be introduced by the Parliament or the government: Sweden, France, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain
- States where referenda are rare: Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium, Finland, Estonia and Greece
- States where the constitution in practice contains few or no provision for referenda: Portugal, Romania and Bulgaria.
One’s first reaction may be, no wonder the EU is having such a hard time, but there’s a more fundamental issue, how each state chooses to practice democracy. In the U.S we are so used to using the word democracy, we tend to slide over what it means. We believe democracy is best, superior to any other form of government and then make a jump to therefore equate our way with what is best. We forget what it is that gives democracy its edge, it is political participation. There are, indeed, many ways and many degrees of participation in the political process, all valid if one applies the criterion of consent of the governed, a criterion which has a long philosophical, legal and spiritual pedigree. We erroneously assume that democracy automatically means direct democracy and that our system of election is best, forgetting all the while that ours is not as direct as we often think, but a representative democracy, whereby we elect individuals to participate in democracy 0n our behalf. The voters in the first category above, for example, believe in something much more direct than our system, their vote is directly binding on the government. Any way is valid, it seems, as long as two factors are met, one that there is a level of political participation and second that this level be agreed upon–if not chosen.
Perhaps the next time a President or some surrogate talks about spreading democracy, we can remind ourselves of the underlying questions that raises and be better equipped to either agree or disagree.