The musical “Hamilton” has been running on Broadway for over a year. The story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America, is a real hit with the public. But one of his most important lessons has been forgotten by citizens on both sides of the Atlantic: Pure democracy would be the perfect form of government if it were practical. Experience shows, however, that nothing is more mistaken than this.
It’s no coincidence that both Mr. Hamilton and before him British philosopher and politician Edmund Burke had an extremely skeptical attitude toward referendums such as we have just experienced in Britain with the Brexit. Instead, they advocated representative democracy.
The referendum in Britain has now let the genies of direct democracy out of the bottle.
With an awareness of the course of events during the French Revolution, both knew that the path from referendums can lead to populism and on to a tyranny of the people. For the same reasons, the fathers of Germany’s Basic Law provided for countrywide referendums only in two exceptional cases: establishing a new constitution or reshaping federal territory.
The referendum in Britain has now let the genies of direct democracy out of the bottle. Right-wing populists in the Netherlands and France are calling for an immediate decision by the people about whether their countries should remain in the European Union.
And since the Brexit shock, the head of the Christian Socialist Union in Germany, Horst Seehofer, has been calling for more referendums on a federal level in Germany. The premier of the state of Bavaria is asserting that citizen participation is the core of modern politics.
Who would dispute that? Particularly in the Internet era of constant “likes” in social media, this seems to be the order of the day. But democracy doesn’t begin at the ballot box. It starts with political discourse in civil society. “Government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment,” Mr. Burke wrote.
It is a matter of the exchange of arguments to identify the better choice of action. This is all the more true as our world grows ever more complex and fewer simple solutions exist for complex problems. The tools of the digital age can help people come to a reasoned conclusion. Never before has there been so much information for free.
But the Internet can also cause political discourse to decay into a rivalry among populist big-talkers. The tweets of Donald Trump are proof of this. In the digital age, popular referendums can thereby become a danger for democracy.
On Thursday, British voters not only answered the question as to the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union. Many Brexit advocates also wanted to make it clear what they thought of their political leadership, the world around them and the “system” of democracy and capitalism – namely nothing.
Brussels, as the already discredited symbol of a technocratic political management remote from citizens, was a welcome scapegoat. Even if the European Union can’t be held responsible for the digital revolution that’s destroying many jobs, for the cheap Chinese goods pressing down wages and for the millions of people fleeing from the civil wars in the Mideast.
Especially because such complex problems can be resolved only through the clash of political arguments and not of slogans, most countries in the West have decided upon representative democracy. Here citizens trust the judgment of the representative they select.
But this band of trust between citizens and their representatives has been ruptured. Many citizens consider politics to be an elitist spectacle that has very little to do with the problems in their everyday lives. This gives rise to the anger that made Mr. Trump a presidential candidate and drove Britain out of the European Union.
The complaint about the democratic deficit in the European Union is almost as old as the community itself. Never before, however, has this deficit led to an acute existential threat to European unity. The economic bloc can emerge from this crisis only if it provides its member states and their citizens with more palpable results.
But it would be a mistake to give way to pressure from the populists and replace political discourse with permanent referendums. Otherwise, we could meet the same fate as many Britons who woke up on the morning after the referendum and said: “What in God’s name have we done?”
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