Question (3/7): One of the most commonly used counterarguments in Greece against referendums [especially, the purest form of it, the referendums triggered by the people] and citizens’ initiatives is that the people are not “educated” and “mature” to properly vote in favor of the “right” option. It will be easy for demagogues, it is said, to mislead the citizens and lead them to erroneous decisions. What is your opinion of this? How did Swiss people become mature enough to take the “right” decisions and eventually develop a prosperous country? What are the criteria for one to tell that people are “mature” enough to use the referendums properly and effectively?
Answer: The image of the uneducated and politically immature citizen has accompanied the development of modern democracy since its beginnings. It is a typical example of the way in which established groups or elites represent so-called ordinary people. It has been used regularly by the powerful to limit people’s political power; it was used as an argument against democracy, to politically exclude women and poor people, and today, when everybody has the right to elect, it is used to deny people the right to vote. Again and again the political exclusion and disempowerment of certain groups or categories of people has been justified by asserting their political incompetence. Thereby cause and effect are inverted. Actually political incompetence is caused by political exclusion and not the other way round.
Of course, differences in political competence present a problem but they provide no reason for political exclusion. Therefore, education for democracy is extremely important and withholding it represents a form of political exclusion. The image of the politically incompetent citizen is in itself an instrument for the production of incompetence. It contributes to reducing people’s self-value and discourages them from becoming active in politics.
In so far as purely representative democracy limits people’s access to political participation it creates political incompetence. No amount of political education can change this; the only cure is more democracy, that ist, to abolish the institutionalized categorical inequality between citizens and politicians.
This is precisely what happened in Switzerland, first on the cantonal level in the 1860s and later on the federal level (1874 and 1891), when democratic movements forced the introduction of direct democracy. The Swiss became politically more mature simply by taking what they considered as their political rights (initiative and referendum) and by exercising these rights; they were dissatisfied with representative democracy and wanted not only the right to elect representatives but also direct access to decision-making and better control over their government and representatives.
In a democracy every citizen is equally entitled to participate in government regardless of birth, wealth, knowledge, talent and any other such qualification. Democracy is based on the idea that in politics everybody is competent. There is no position from which anyone could decide who is politically competent and who is not. In practice this means that we don’t have to wait until people become politically mature, rather we can start right now to exercise equal political rights and by doing it all people involved will mature.