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Welcome to the new coliseum: Abdication, surrender and the referendum moment in European politics

The Greek story is not just a story about Greece; it is a story about the radical changes affecting representative democracies. The turn to referendum politics is the best evidence we have that populism is the great transformative threat facing politics. Paradoxically, we seem to be leaving the agora and headed toward a new coliseum.

Sometimes it seems as though European politicians are hell-bent on granting populism the gift of life.  If your jury was still out, the past few days should have clarified matters somewhat: as Rompuy announced a few years back, populism is indeed the major threat facing Europe.  But if you’re thinking populism strictly as a form of right wing politics embodied by anti-immigrant parties (such as the French FN, Wilders’ PVV, and a host of others) seeped in nationalism–then you need to think more about referenda and less about immigration.  Of course, such parties are an important aspect of what constitutes populist politics; But they are only one – and perhaps not the most serious – symptom of the rise of populism as the ideology of the 21st century.

What is important here is the much bigger picture—beyond parties of the right, and of the left – it is the more insidious and grimmer mutations that populism has been wreaking on representative institutions that we need to take seriously.

The Greeks face a terrible choice on Sunday, and everyone who has had a hand in creating this dire deadlock should feel deep regret and even deeper shame (except I’m not sure they do).  A roll-call of culprits is difficult to call; They are so numerous and clueless. Who shall we blame most?  The finger-wagging creditors seeped in pseudo-Christian morality and domestic analogies? The complicit politicos across Europe who for years turned a blind eye to the corrupt and self-serving ways of a section of the Greek elite? The citizens who decided that none of this was their business? Or the current Greek leadership who decided to play chicken with the future of their country?

Of course, no matter how difficult the choice, the answer on Sunday must be yes—because while it will be difficult to recover from austerity (even re-packaged), it would take far, far longer to recover from being a failed state.  It’s simple, we all want Greece inside this imperfect European tent, and we need to encourage it to stay.

But the Greek story is of course not just a story about Greece, it is a story about the radical changes affecting European democracies, in fact all representative democracies. The turn to referendum politics (a favourite instrument in the populist arsenal and, always, a core programmatic promise) is the best evidence we have that populism is the great transformative threat facing representative politics.

Many argue that our democratic institutions are in need of a serious corrective and this often leads them to take populism as either the corrective itself, or a first step toward it. But the looming referenda in Europe (and their consequences which will fall into either of two camps: bad or very bad) demonstrate that populism has already profoundly transformed our capacity to ‘do’ politics and to govern—populism is the problem rather than the corrective. The fact is that we are entering a populist era from which only severely creative breaks with traditional forms of representation will create the conditions for renewal–but populism shouldn’t be mistaken for that creative break.


The abdication of decision-makers and the surrender of citizens

Over the past few decades representative institutions have suffered incomparable pressures: technology has transformed voters’ expectations (both about results, but also about process), and economic and financial interdependence have reduced (though not annihilated as some would argue) policy-makers’ capacity to redistribute and protect; As a result diversity has been increasingly perceived as a liability.  In a nutshell: the costs of open societies and open economies have transformed citizens into reluctant democrats; whilst politicians and governments have become welfare reluctant leaders.

It is not so much that the public’s trust in politicians and policy-makers has fallen (it really was never very high: deference did not mean trust) but impatience has grown just as the complexity of issues to resolve has increased.  Given that beyond its party political expressions, one of the defining aspects of populism is the fantasy of immediate accessibility and radical transparency, this growing complexity has fuelled its capacity to recruit on the back of frustrated citizen expectations.  Populist politics promise the possibility of channelling and expressing emotions promptly and directly—with little hesitation or filtering; As well as opportunities to always know your mind AND to speak it.  Referenda are a part of fulfilling this fantasy of direct and transparent politics.

Perhaps more importantly, politicians and policy makers have ceased to trust their own capacity to deliver given the combination of complex issues, the perceived unpredictability of the political context and the public’s apparent contradictions. The fact that such a basic, unsubtle instrument such as a referendum is becoming the political tool of choice is a good illustration of a deep reluctance to shoulder the burden of decision-making in complex times.  Yet not shouldering this burden will bring even higher costs and even more uncertainty.

So just as decision makers (let’s call them that for the sake of tradition) are increasingly reluctant to take on the burden of deciding, so citizens are increasingly handed the tools that create the illusion of control. Is it any wonder that referenda are the love-child of this supremely disillusioned couple?



The fact that, thanks to referenda, politics look and feel more and more like the Big Brother House—thumbs up, thumbs down; you’re in, you’re out – is a sign of populism’s encroachment on representative democracy. Much like on television, this saves ‘the producers’ from actually having to make a decision; And if it makes for bad politics (or bad entertainment), then the citizen has no one but other citizens to blame.

While much of the discussion has been about the results of the referendum in the UK and Greece (and about the nature of the question), there is a simple cvase to be argued against having referenda at all.  First, referenda are very blunt instruments at best. Objections to referenda tend to cluster around the idea that they embody the worse kind of democracy: one in which majorities lord it over minorities in ways that are, at best, unfair and, at worse, oppressive. And in diverse societies, this argument carries weight.  But even this may be the lesser of all evils.  One could – if one really wanted to, and I don’t really  – even justify this sort of arrangement on the grounds of efficiency for instance; or on the grounds that, precisely because we live in diverse societies in which people have multiple allegiances, no one will be consistently on the losing side, thereby creating a democratic sense of ‘swings and roundabouts’.

But much bigger problems arise when referenda are used in particularly contentious, divisive issues that divide the electorate into more balanced, larger blocks: then the losing side is a very large minority that cannot be so easily managed or discounted. A political instrument whose results ride roughshod on a large proportion of the population is neither democratic, nor, more to the point, efficient. The upcoming UK referendum on Europe is a case in point: while there is a sense that the ‘yes’ vote will get over the line, the binary nature of a referendum creates a situation in which it is easy to overlook the fact that how the ‘yes’ camp gets over the line, is as important as doing so.  A ‘yes’, perceived as nothing but the hallmark of an elite political and business project is bound to create huge resentment in what could be the large minority of the ‘no’ camp. Just as UKIP is dying a nice and well-deserved little death, the result of the referendum will in all probability lead to moving the UKIP (or whoever takes up the fight) needle not to 13% but to 30%.  By creating the illusion of decision making and also bypassing the messy but necessary process of democratic negotiation, referenda generally just create more populism.

So what we tend to take for a decision-making tool, is in fact a massive uncertainty machine—that over time settles nothing and creates more resentment, more instability and more unpredictability.  In different times, referenda at least had the merit of kicking the political can down the road and, possibly, bought governments a little time; They were never glorious instruments, but the various Quebec referenda in the 1980s and 1990s, or the Maastricht referenda, for instance, gave both sides time to regroup over long periods of time.  Political factions, but more to the point, citizens could take time to ponder, to weigh, to allow for policy and institutions to evolve and to sway them—or not.   They didn’t solve much—but their consequences weren’t quite so immediately dire.

We don’t live in that world anymore: the speed of the media feedback loop, demands for immediate political and policy reactions to instantaneous media and market reactions have fattened the populist monster in such a way that we are very likely to see ‘referendum spirals’.  And here think of Scotland: living under the threatening half-promise of another referendum.

And so finally we come to Greece – the latest case of representative politics abdicating to the forces of populism.  Unless you really believe that Tsipras had Grexit as a strategy up his sleeve all along, then it’s difficult not to see his call for a referendum as both the worse possible option (no matter what the result) and the emblem of populism’s reign over Europe.

The Greek case is a study in the weakness and toxicity of referenda as political instruments.  It shines a spotlight on what referenda actually do: offloading the responsibility of elected leaders onto citizens, creating an illusion of choice, and dividing societies for the long-term.  Under the guise of getting a democratic mandate, leaders pass the buck.  The cowardice has not gone un-noticed.  Neither has the dastardly nature of the question.  As Cas Mudde and Aristos Doxiadis have noted the question is disingenuous: while posing as a referendum on the terms of the bail-out, it is really a referendum on Grexit.  The manner in which the text is worded as approved by the Greek parliament is a text-book case of asking turkeys to vote for Christmas: would you like more taxes, lower pensions and hardship for the foreseeable future. Or not.  A yes seals the deal for austerity, but not unlikely ‘no’ will lead to an unspecified outcome; which most probably will turn out to be a marginalized, poor, balkan Greece .  Neither of these is a good result, and as noted by a number of commentators, it is a situation that might have been avoided had Syriza been honest and not created the illusion that there could be a Greece in the Euro without agreeing to the troika measures (the so called ‘third scenario’).

But by far the most catastrophic consequence of resorting to a referendum is the one least talked about—the consequence on the political and social body. Abdicating one’s responsibility to lead, as Tsipras and Varoufakis have done, doesn’t just smack of political cowardice and manipulation, it leaves Greek citizens pegged against each other in the aftermath of the decision.  That’s what referenda do and this is why they tend to make situations worse: by releasing leaders from their decision-making role, they also release them from their function as political and social lightning conductors.  Leaving citizens to face each other without the possibility of displacing blame or resentment. In representative democracies politicians and policy makers govern on our behalf – but, crucially, they also absorb the force of discontent and resentment thus avoiding its dispersion in civil and political society.  Referenda shut that possibility down: politics becomes a show-down.  Welcome to the new coliseum.

Catherine Fieschi


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