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NewStatesman

And in the second place, decisions taken with the instruments of direct democracy should preferably have the support of substantial majorities in order to avoid the despotism of those very few distinguishing the majority from the minority. Thirdly, if representative democracy should be protected against invasions by direct democracy, the reverse holds as well. That is, decisions made within the framework of direct democracy have to be respected by the institutions of representative democracy.

Put differently, the outcomes of direct democracy are binding for all of the body politic. But if these three conditions have been satisfied variants of direct democracy can undoubtedly be a welcome addition to the instruments of representative democracy. Mobilizing direct and representative democracy against each other should all the more be avoided because the latter is itself an unstable mixture already.

In order to see this one need not go all the way back to Antiquity, as with direct democracy. Nevertheless much further back than to the birth of representative democracy at the beginning of the 19th century. Namely to the late Middle Ages, some six to seven centuries ago. Political power then was much different from what it is now. To put it quite briefly, the princes and kings of that time did not possess sovereign power as would be the case with the monarchs of the 17th and the 18th centuries. Sovereignty understood as legislative power is a modern notion that came into being only in the 16th century; Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes were the first to define it, and it could not have been defined before them for the simple reason that before then it had not yet come into existence.

Medieval princes and kings were judges, no legislators. The Middle Ages had a spontaneously developing customary law and knew no legislation in the proper sense of that term. Nevertheless, the medieval prince often had to do business with the inhabitants of his territories. For example when he was in need of money; as was almost continuously the case. Now, in practice the money the prince needed had to be obtained from the Third Estate, since this is where big money could be found. The result were negotiations between the prince and the representatives of the Third Estate in which the latter normally declared themselves to support the prince financially on condition that he granted them certain privileges such as the right to levy toll taxes, to mint coins or stack right.


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In fact public law did not exist in the Middle Ages; private law was all one had. But, as such, law was all pervasive in the Middle Ages. It is not hard to see who lost most from the transition from the Medieval to the modern way of collecting the financial means needed for public purposes. Now, the crucial thing is this. The representatives of the Third Estate were always tied by a binding mandate to their grassroots. Hence, they could not follow their own compass when coming to an agreement with the prince. This is the essence of medieval political representation. Modern political representation is basically different.

Representative democracy combined two entirely different things: medieval political representation and absolute monarchy. How has this transition from medieval to modern political representation been possible?

A Monarchy in Crisis

Absolute monarchy is the explanation. The absolute monarch had sovereign power and could decide as he thought was best, regardless of the opinion of his subjects. Nevertheless, sovereign power remained indispensable for the modern state. It could not be abolished together with the absolute monarch; after a return to the Middle Ages was no option. But what to do with sovereign power, now that it had been taken away from the absolute monarch?

The funny thing is that the question was never really asked in such a straightforward way. Instead, sovereign power was now handed over more or less as a matter of course to the representative institutions inherited from the Middle Ages. The French Revolution is the best example. So in a mere three days France made the tremendous leap from the Middle Ages to a modern representative democracy.

However, without anyone carefully thinking through all aspects of this unheard constitutional revolution. Admittedly, three days is a bit short for doing so.

Anyway, the result was that representative democracy combined two entirely different things: medieval political representation and absolute monarchy. And the French revolutionaries soon added a third to these two: to control how the executive performs its tasks.

Abolish the Monarchy! - A response to CGP Grey

Now, this is, in fact, a most bizarre mixture of tasks — and we fail to recognize this since we have become so much accustomed to it that we can hardly conceive that government could and perhaps even should be organized differently. But the second task requires him to leave his voters in the cold if he himself considers their desires unwise, impracticable or imprudent. Who would not have the impression to have entered the world of Kafka under such circumstances? Above all since nobody really worried after him about the wisdom of assigning the task of representation and legislation to one and the same body.

Politicians may, at times, have felt to be torn between these two tasks when asking themselves how to realize when in power what they had promised to do to their voters. But this must have seemed to them one of the inevitable complications of their job they had to live with — just as a GP should both cure his patients and to write them bills for his consults — rather than a matter of principle.


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  • The problem was wholly relegated to the background with the advent of political ideologies, such as liberalism, Christian democracy or social democracy. These ideologies created an indissoluble tie between the voter and his representative inviting them to remain blind to the problem. The fact that his representative was also a member of the legislative was not in the least a problem for the voter in the age of political ideology.

    On the contrary: his legislative powers were precisely their strongest, and most needed weapon in their struggle with their political adversaries! To put it with a dash of paradox: thanks to political ideology modern political representation did not differ in the political experience of both voter and representative from what medieval political representation had been like. The fundamental difference between representation and legislation had now wholly disappeared behind the horizon.

    Nice, good old representative democracy now turns out to be a far less innocuous elective aristocracy — which, in fact, it had always been, but without our being aware of it.


    • Constitutional monarchy.
    • A question of breeding.
    • Germany 1933: From democracy to dictatorship;
    • One of them is directed to the voter. But the other to all kinds of people for whom the voter will have little sympathy and whom he may even suspect to be a threat to his interests and to all that is known, familiar and dear to him. Such as the ladies and gentlemen of the EU and of the financial sector. For the representative something similar is true. Wilders in the Netherlands and Trump in the USA choose for the first option — with the result that they either shun like the pest taking political responsibility Wilders , or behave irresponsibly after having taken it Trump.

      Speaking generally, it is still insufficiently recognized what the death of ideology must mean for our kind of democracies.

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      Ideology is for representative democracy what gasoline is for our cars: representative democracy comes to a grinding halt without political ideology. Self-evidently, this is not meant to be a recommendation for reinventing political ideology, but it is merely an observation on the nature of representative democracy. This explains the success of populism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

      But we should not remain blind to the undeniable fact that populism sometimes puts issues on the political agenda that are of great importance. What protection may we expect from the state against unwanted social, cultural, economic and religious foreign influences? Are there limits to the demand to treat people equally or to that of the freedom of expression?

      If so, where? And what should we do if such demands are in conflict with each other?

      Democracy - Our World in Data

      These are good and sensible questions and anyone who fails to acknowledge their urgency is living on another planet than ours. What conclusions follow from all this? In the first place, the dangers of populism, though real enough, should not be exaggerated. Notice, above all, that populists never demanded the abolition of representative democracy.