Philip Pettit – Two Conceptions of Democracy and Referenda

“To clearly grasp the difference between the populist and personalist views of referendums, consider the Brexit case. Should parliament have allowed an unqualified majority referendum to determine whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union? Perhaps for those who espouse the populist model of democracy. But not for those who value democracy on a personalist basis—as I do myself.”

We at Brave New Europe don’t take a position on Brexit. While we recognise that many dark and odious forces lay behind the Brexit vote, and that the process will inflict significant economic damage on many people, we also know that European institutions and policies typically reflect a strong neoliberal slant – and we launched this project to oppose and change this.  We have sympathy with the anger against European institutions – but we also believe in the principle of European cross-border co-operation and co-ordination in many areas.  Reflecting this complex reality, we will host both pro-Brexit and pro-Remain articles.

Philip Pettit is L.S. Rockefeller University professor of human values at Princeton University and distinguished professor of philosophy at the Australian National University. He is the author of On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy and Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World.

Originally published in the New Statesman

Government will always be with us. Government will always be coercive. And among the laws that government enforces, some will always be unwelcome to a particular person or group.

Democracy is meant to help reconcile us to these hard facts by giving power to the people. There are, however, two distinct ways of construing democracy, and they have different strategies for enabling “the people” to exercise power.

One conception of democracy is focused on people as a collective agent: the people. The other account sees people as a collection of persons: people, without the article. One is ‘populist’ in spirit, whereas the other has a ‘personalist’ character.

The difference between these conceptions comes out in the distinct ways they see referenda and how they would deal with the Brexit case. But in order to tease out these differences, it is worth looking first at the tests by which they gauge the success of a democracy as well as the different political institutions they support.

The populist test for a successful democracy is whether or not the collective people are in control. Can the majority, or those the majority elect, get their way, without being unnecessarily frustrated by elites or minorities, lobbies or bureaucracies, courts or tribunals, or indeed international treaties?

The personalist test is whether or not individuals for whom certain laws are unwelcome have some genuine cause for resentment. Will they have reason to see government policy as the product of an alien will that stacks things against them? Or will they be able to treat these policies as the outcome of a fair decision-making process in which they figure as equals? In short, will they be able to see a government decision as a matter of tough-luck if it goes against their wishes?

The populist, electoral-control test focuses on whether the collective people are properly in charge. The personalist, tough-luck test prioritizes the question of how individuals are entitled to think of the government choices under which they live: are these decisions responsive to everyone or are they made through a process in which the influence of some is marginalized?

The tests motivate different democratic mantras. The populist test invariably appeals to the need for government to implement the will of the people, whereas the personalist test appeals to the idea that government choices are justified on the basis of transparent and responsive decision-making procedures.

Although these tests mark the difference between empowering the majority and making government equally responsive to all, the two models of democracy have much in common.

They each rely, for example, on a written or unwritten constitutional framework for decision-making that can only be changed in certain ways, perhaps by referendum. They each support a constitutionally dictated mode of periodically electing representative authorities. And they each permit voters to determine or influence legislation, perhaps, again, through a referendum.

Under both models, again, there are a range of unelected authorities, appointed by the elected but with a degree of independence from them. These typically include the courts at various levels, auditing and inspectorial agencies, electoral commissions and central banks, bureaus of statistics and economic data, equal-opportunity and human-rights commissions, and so on.

Under both models, finally, there are likely to be laws establishing freedom of information, freedom of speech and association, and a free press and other media. Such laws are defensible on a range of grounds but are required in any case for elections to be open and fair.

Yet the convergences between the ‘populist’ and ‘personalist’ models of democracy hide some deep differences, and there are at least three ways in which these models come apart.

Constitutions determine how governments operate, but they also seek to protect vulnerable individuals or groups, and the first difference between the models is the weight they ascribe to these disparate functions. The populist model sees the constitution primarily in operational terms, as setting the rules by which government runs. The personalist model, in contrast, assigns equal significance to the protective role; for it aims to ensure people’s equality as individual persons in relation to the power of the state.

The second difference between the models is in the importance they give to unelected authorities. The populist model sees such authorities as justified, if justified at all, by pragmatic considerations to do with efficiency or with assuring people that their power is not compromised by any clique. The personalist model focuses on the fact that independent bodies are limited by accepted constraints and it treats them as part of a system of checks and balances designed to ensure that government serves all its citizens well.

The third difference between the models is in the role they assign to free speech and association. The populist model gives a democratic role to those freedoms just insofar as they are required for open and fair elections. The personalist alternative argues that they are also essential for holding the government to account between elections by enabling individuals to take government to court or by allowing people to expose government to challenges in the media and on the streets.

Thus, where the populist model takes democracy to operate via the single channel of election to office, the personalist alternative emphasizes the importance of three channels. First, the electoral channel, which is needed guard against dynastic control. Second, the checks-and-balances channel which forces those elected to power to operate within a network of unelected authorities who operate under constitutional constraints. And third, the contestatory channel that enables ordinary citizens and civic bodies to hold up those in power, elected and unelected, to public scrutiny. The importance of the second and third channels is underlined for personalists by the way they are systematically attacked in autocratic democracies.

With that said, each model of democracy can admit referenda, both for purposes of altering the constitution and for legislating about issues on which the elected authorities are divided. But given the distinct tests by which they gauge the success of a democracy as well as the disparate political institutions they support, they are bound to view referenda very differently.

The populist model has no reservations over majoritarian referenda in either the constitutional or legislative case, since majority voting is the salient way in which the collective people can act. If democracy means giving the collective people control over government, then any reason to resort to a referendum will be a reason to let the preference of the majority prevail.

The personalist model may recognize the need to resort to referenda to resolve constitutional discontent or legislative stalemate, but it will hesitate over some worrying aspects of decision by referendum. Any such decision may reduce the protections currently available to certain vulnerable sectors. It may be prompted by short-term anxieties but make for long-term damage. It may jeopardize the lives of citizens who planned around the status quo. If it introduces a major change, it may be a source of un-foreseen consequences. And yet it is liable to be given an authority that makes it incontestable in the usual forums

In light of these concerns, the personalist model will look for various safeguards surrounding referenda. The referendum might be preceded by an assembly where representative citizens debate the issue and announce their recommendation. It might have to generate super-majoritarian support (say, 60%) for a radical change. It might be divided into a first referendum and, if it recommends change, a second after a period of reflection. And it might have to satisfy special constraints, such as being supported in a majority of regions as well as by an overall majority of people.

To clearly grasp the difference between the populist and personalist views of referenda, consider the Brexit case. Should the Westminster Parliament have allowed the issue of whether or not to remain in the European Union to be determined by an unqualified majority referendum? Perhaps for those who espouse the populist model of democracy. But not for those who value democracy on a personalist basis—as I do myself.

The Brexit referendum touches on all the personalist’s concerns. The decision taken is likely to prove deleterious in some quarters, even among those who rallied in support. It was stoked by what may prove to be temporary, exaggerated anxieties about immigration. The life-plans of many, particularly the young, were premised on a continuing access to the EU that it has closed. It has already generated consequences unforeseen by many supporters. And now the Brexit decision, cast as “the will of the people”, is hailed by defenders, including the Prime Minister, as if it were forever incontestable.

Even if the Brexit outcome gains acceptance in the long run, it should not have been generated by such a majoritarian process. No end could justify this means.

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