The Essence of Democracy

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The British referendum and the immediate and anticipated further major repercussions have resulted in numerous comments and articles by analysts and academics on the feasibility of the direct appeal to the people’s verdict on critical issues.

Demagogues in general, which unfortunately specifically include the current Greek prime minister, due to naivety, lack of historical knowledge or, even worse, unbridled and uncritical populism, proclaim the “direct recourse to popular will” as a highly democratic means for the people to decide their fate. They claim that the referendum is the essence of democracy.

Is it so?

Even during the historical period of the birth and implementation of the first democracy, in Ancient Athens, when citizens were numerically few and matters were infinitely simpler, the function of direct democracy by direct consultation and decision by all the citizens often led to tragic mistakes when the people, victims of demagogy or emotional charge, proceeded to make frivolous decisions despite the need for mature and calm discussion in order to decide on issues with multifaceted and long-term consequences.

In the war against Sparta, Cleon and Alcibiades led Athens to defeat and destruction with the consent of the people whom they convinced to follow dire political decisions.

Since then and throughout the centuries, the leaders of all countries and of all times have understood that although the people have the ultimate say, this power must be exercised by individuals who have knowledge, intelligence and good judgment, but also the possibility to consult and to decide in a thorough and responsible manner.

Thus parliamentary democracy was born and established.

The people elect their representatives with the basic criteria that they have the ability to converse calmly and decide with mature judgment, as well as the respective complex and required specific knowledge and experiences. History teaches that, with very few exceptions, the referenda are not in and of themselves a “direct expression of popular will,” but products of populism and political hypocrisy, since their promoters ultimately exploit the natural weaknesses of all peoples in general to evaluate, especially nowadays, the complicated and complex issues.

The essence of democracy, therefore, is not simply a matter of sovereign people making decisions. It must simultaneously ensure the protection of interests from the demagogues, from the division often caused by the referenda, and the careless and irresponsible decisions.

Recent blatant examples are, of course, the Greek fiasco last year and the British referendum. Although democracy is better than all other political systems, it has its problems. It must therefore be protected from demagoguery and create safeguards so that it may be exercised with the assurance of seriousness, composure and accountability in decision making.

X is a former senior foreign policy leader who prefers to remain anonymous.