Turning to the people has drawbacks

Centre for Fair Political Analysis: Citizens are not always up to the task

The National Consultation announced by the government has again stirred up a hornet’s nest. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) called for a boycott and far-right party Jobbik branded it demagogy. Is the uproar justified? The question is not a simple one. The government and the opposition seem to have a different interpretation of the essence of democracy.
The opposition spurns the initiative in the spirit of liberal democracy on the grounds that Parliament is the place for making decisions, while the government wishes to base democracy less on institutions than on the sense of community of the citizenry, which cannot be argued with either. And what represents better the sense of community than the involvement of citizens in the decision-making process?
However, it is doubtful whether the National Consultation in its current form is up to the task. In the West the procedures of the various forms of direct democracy – participatory, direct and deliberative democracy – are well-established so there would have been plenty of models to draw from. Below we describe the advantages of risks of direct democratic procedures, and then seek to answer the question of what purpose the National Consultation could serve and what it is not good for.
First of all, it is worth distinguishing between direct and deliberative democracy. While traditional direct democracy tends to emphasise legal institutions (referendums, people’s initiatives), the process is at the centre of deliberative democracy: the views of the sides are shaped through public debate, allowing them to find common ground.
The fundamental principle of deliberative democracy is the conduct of public debate. Research into deliberative democracy has a rich tradition in the West, with special research institutes and think-tanks specialising in the question (such as the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation).
The government is taking Hungary towards deliberative democracy with its National Consultation initiative, or rather it would take Hungary in that direction, if both the government and the opposition were not labouring under the Hungarian political culture. We argue that the National Consultation is essentially deliberative in theory but the way in which it is being implemented and its purpose is not.

Trends in the West: advantages and risks

In the West efforts by politicians to involve citizens in the decision-making process have long been observed. Complementing modern democracy with direct and deliberative elements cannot be regarded as “populism” or “demagogy”, since we would then also have to reject the well-established institutions of referendums and people’s initiatives. And who would claim that Switzerland or the 24 states of the United States where referendums are customary are democratic wastelands, rather than laboratories of direct democracy?
Nevertheless, the level of the conflict of the given political culture and society play a large role in what actually becomes of the mechanisms of direct democracy. In France, for example, the system that is commonly known as Bonapartism was cemented and maintained by means of referendums. An originally democratic institution propped up the autocracy, and became a plaything of legitimacy in the hands of Napoleon III (it is another question of course, and one which need not be decided, whether there was another alternative beyond the republic, which has proven weak, or restoration of the monarchy).
The examples indicate that it is not so much the institutions themselves as the political, cultural and social environment, the depth of political and social conflicts, and the means of handling such conflicts that determine whether exercise of the forms of direct democracy strengthen the political system or not.
When it comes to the successful functioning of direct democracy, the nature of the state structure is more important than the size of the country. The first two examples are states with federal structures, in which the rights of regional communities (on the federal state level) act as a check on central power, allowing the forms of direct democracy to serve the purpose for which they were intended: as a counterbalance to the central power and as a guarantee of the freedom of citizens.
In France, by contrast, the central power, which gained strength through centralisation, successfully took advantage of direct democracy to bolster its own legitimacy, setting aside the rights of the smaller communities of citizens (regions, départements).
Dane Waters, founder and president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, describes direct democracy based on people’s initiatives as a central element of the principles of self-government and liberty upon which America was founded.
At the end of the 19th century the People’s Party and the progressive movement embraced forms of direct democracy in order to curb the power of the government, felt by everyday Americans to be too strong, through people’s legislative initiatives and referendums. Many were worried that the party machines would become out of touch with society and do away with democracy, which is why they reclaimed democratic political decision-making for everyday people (today such progressive efforts can be seen on the right wing, in the Tea Party movement).
In the cantons of Switzerland and in many states of the USA, the procedures of direct democracy channel information “from below” into political decision-making and play a role in the exchange of information between the community, “the people” and the elite, and in counterbalancing the rule of the elites and the influence of political and economic interest groups.
Naturally, direct democracy can be not only exercised by citizens; such initiatives can also be encouraged “from above”, from the government. The fact that a party, a movement or even the government itself turns directly to voters, the “people”, in itself cannot be regarded as a threat to democracy and parliamentarianism.
Nevertheless, the gesture of “turning to the people” should not be used to eliminate parliamentary decision-making, the role of technocracy or the performance of obligations arising from international agreements and membership of international organisations from the functioning of democracy.
Direct democracy also has its weaknesses. One obstacle, which is difficult to surmount, is the question of competence and lack of information. It is not worth “bothering” citizens with questions that they are not capable of or have no desire to answer because of lack of information. Since deliberative democracy assumes the equality of the parties, the individual lacking information will necessarily be at a disadvantage.
The more local the level at which direct democracy is practised (town, housing community, factory), the more likely it is that sound, well-thought-out answers will be given to well-asked, relevant questions, since it is easier to access information within smaller communities, and the individuals concerned are more motivated to participate in joint decision-making (although even in such small communities there are many free riders who wish to enjoy the benefits of decisions made but not participate in making those decisions).
In questions on a national level, especially where the economy is concerned, citizens have a tendency to answer without gathering the necessary information, based solely on their desires or likes and dislikes.
In other words, we should not lend too much mystique to the involvement of the “people” in decision-making but nor should we underestimate either its practical or theoretical significance. Our starting point should be that democracy works if citizens are regularly confirmed in their conviction that they are important and their opinion matters to the political players.

Another way of counting voters?

Having established that turning to the “people” strengthens democracy rather than running counter to democracy, we can ask specifically: does the government’s initiative satisfy the criteria of deliberative democracy?
As we have outlined above, direct democracy serves to ensure citizens’ liberty. That can include the holder of power turning to citizens. However, such government initiatives need to fulfil two minimal requirements: the questions should be directed at those groups that are competent to answer on the given subject, and sufficient information should be available about the likely advantages and disadvantages of the decision made.
The current National Consultation meets neither criterion. When putting together the questions, competence of the respondents clearly was not at the front of the drafters’ minds: the questions cover everything from flat-rate taxation, housing support for families with children, and assistance for foreign-currency borrowers through to the purchasing power of pensions. Pensioners are competent to answer one question while foreign-currency borrowers are competent to answer another.
The drafters of the questionnaire probably assumed that individuals are capable of planning their future (until their retirement years), but anthropology does not back up that view of man as far-sighted and deliberating rationally (not to mention the fact that another government can come along that is not “bound” by the consultation).
It may seem unjust that those people are (also) deciding on assistance to foreign-currency borrowers who are not in trouble since they cannot judge what help those who are need would require. It would have been more expedient to turn directly to the given target groups and ask what needs and suggestions they have, and how they think the government could help them effectively.
The questionnaire is not the most suitable means for that. Its drafters made the mistake of phrasing the questions in a particularly complicated way so that they each take up four to seven lines. As a result it is likely that there will be a large number of “I cannot judge” replies.
How many people will take the trouble to go through all 16 (!) questions closely, ponder on the answers and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages? It is probable that those wishing to prove their loyalty to the government by returning the questionnaire will be in larger numbers among the respondents. What answers they give is almost irrelevant. To the government the main thing is that its sphere of supporters can be assessed.
So if the National Consultation does not satisfy the principle of competence and it is not based on equal access to information, then what is its purpose? The government is clearly keen to give citizens the impression that the views of everyday people are important to it, as opposed to the previous Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments, which gave preference to technocracy.
Besides that, the government may well have the pragmatic aim of assessing its own level of support through the consultation (given the unfavourable trend indicated by opinion polls) and forging greater unity among its camp.
The fact that larger numbers of its own voters are likely to return the questionnaire, so it will reflect the opinion not of the population as a whole but of voters for the governing party(ies), is not a problem since there is no better method than the questionnaire for the government to assess the degree of loyalty within the population and the size of its potential sphere of supporters.
For the government, in other words, the National Consultation is a winner. The problem is that it does not bring us any closer to real deliberative democracy.