Referendums are not a bottom-up tool for mass participation in collective decision-making. They are a top-down tool in the hands of politicians to sort us in the trenches of their wars – or to divide and distract us. And the reason lies in the way referendums are called.
Democracy is based on a fallacy. Majority voting, the method selected as the least bad to incorporate the masses’ opinions, does not constitute facts. It does not constitute right. It does not constitute reality. We may vote with an overwhelming majority that the sun doesn’t set today – but it will. The majority may decide to take away the property of that mean, rich Jew – it doesn’t make it right.
If anything, majority vote is the approximation of who would win in a fist fight – the most numerous group refraining from violence because they got what they wanted by voting. Or to turn it around, the least number of people are disappointed in the decision thereby reducing the chance of a fight.
Naturally, democracy is much more than just dumb voting. For a start, it is only used to elect decision-makers – not to make decisions. Decisions are incredibly complex, in an honest world they would require the collection of so much information that it would take months and years for any politician to arrive to an informed decision.
Then there are equally important institutional balances built into democratic political systems, the ones that tend to elude voters’ attention. For the vast majority of people voting IS democracy, and thus the majoritarian fallacy reigns supreme.
Lastly, there should be the human element. No institution would fulfill its function if run by chimps – or uninhibited criminals. No institution can withstand the pressure of human corruption, when the person who holds the position simply decides to put might over right, loyalty over public interest, clinging onto power over doing the right thing.
If democracy is based on the majoritarian fallacy – where majority is not the same as truth or even the correct decision – can referendums be the remedy?
Are referendums wrong by trying to make simplistic decisions on complex issues when it was to be avoided in the first place?
Many will (correctly) point out that the degeneration of politics is the inevitable conclusion of a long process that started with the introduction of majority voting as a means to make decisions. Whereas majority voting is not a means to find out truth, or even to find the right decision – it is only to establish which option has more people behind it.
But voting doesn’t constitute reality. Voting doesn’t create right, only might – just rebranded. Just as millennials were dazzled by an advertising video, voters can be dazzled by … well, the same. It is an old cliche that politics was bound to turn into a reality show (minus any deference to reality) due to its emphasis on wooing voters. Communication was always bound to overtake substance and governance, the only surprise is that it took this long.
It took this long until politicians have lost all their inhibitions and gave way to unbridled lies, putting the emphasis on their image rather than people, on perception, rather than reality, on being popular, rather than even pretending to work in the public interest. And they didn’t just scheme – they also reacted to incentives from us: an image can’t be attacked, while a policy can be. An image can spark emotions and emotions make voters move – rationality does not.
Naturally, the process was mutual. Just as politicians lowered their thresholds and regarded voters as increasingly dumb – voters reacted by lowering their own standards for politicians while regarding each other increasingly dumb. And when we all act like we are the only rational person in the room and all the others are misguided idiots – we all act like misguided idiots and the expectation fulfills itself.
Take a new power station. How could a voter possibly have an informed opinion? Even politicians remain blissfully uninformed and toe the party line (which is sinful negligence in their case). But voters are not required to give up months of their lives getting informed. Not to mention the quality of information sources and the impact of misinformation and hysterical scaremongering regarding any issue.
Can a referendum – as is often hoped – be a tool to control our politicians? Or does it just work to manipulate us?
Our chances are not good. Firstly, because we can only stomp yes or no – on incredibly complex issues and without any information about the ‘how’.
Secondly, we can only stomp yes or no when they ask as. On the issues they choose. After years of making decisions over our heads in any and all issues they suddenly want our yes or no. That sounds like a way our parents manipulated us to gather legitimacy (make us shut up) about what was going to happen.
We should ask ourselves why now? But of course we won’t. They told us it is because this issue is really very important – unlike all the others.
But from these two caveats a less motivated observer would gather the conclusion that it is not bottom-up, whatever it is. Unless the entire desire for a referendum is thoroughly bottom-up and goes against the wishes of politicians, it is just politicians choosing to have us make a decision in one particular case, And a very simplistic decision at that.
It could serve them better than it serves us. Some of them can gather the public behind him to beat his opponent with it. In which case we are just pawns in their little wars, wars for contracts, wars for popularity, wars for reelection. It doesn’t matter which. In fact, this purpose a referendum always serves. The rest is uncertain.
In truth, referendums are a ridiculously limited way to control politicians – and only when they ask us. It is rather a top-down tool to set the dividing lines, to frame the debate for the coming decades, to make us align ourselves in a trench war of theirs.
It was all coded in the underlying fallacy that majority = reality/right/correct. A system where popularity (perception) beats competence (substance), where campaigning (communication) beats arguments (a closer proxy to reality), and where even governance could be replaced by communicating to citizens that we are doing better as a country. On their own dime.