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Deliberation and representation in referendum processes

Ronald Van Crombrugge, KU Leuven

Tue 22 August 2017

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


Referendums – and other forms of popular participation such as the citizen initiative – are a controversial topic. While they promise popular control over government, in reality, they are often characterised by a lack of understanding of the issue by the broader public, which in turn opens up room for different forms of elite manipulation. For this reason, deliberative democrats in particular have often been sceptical of the deliberative potential of mass democracies, and especially instruments of direct democracy such as the referendum.

However, the recent turn in deliberative democracy literature towards deliberative systems raises a number of opportunities to re-examine referendums. From a deliberative systems perspective, referendums could potentially fulfil a useful democratic role as the last legitimating step in a larger deliberative process, even though they might not be able to fulfil all the requirements of the deliberative ideal.

Yet, even when we accept that referendums have a potential role to play in a deliberative system, we are still presented with the question: how can thousands, or even millions of people deliberate together during the referendum campaign? It is to this question the article seeks to provide an answer.

This will require putting into question some of the conditions of the “ideal deliberative procedure”, such as full information and equal speaking time, which can hardly ever be expected during a referendum campaign. There, necessarily only the few will do the actual talking, while most citizens will merely listen. But is this normatively acceptable? Or does this mean giving up on the very core of the deliberative ideal? I will argue that an answer can be found by looking at the role representation – in its broadest sense – plays in referendum campaigns. If differences in power during the referendum campaign can be seen as subject to a broader relation of representation, they might be less problematic from a democratic point of view. In addition, I will argue that under the right circumstances, representation can fulfil the role of an “epistemic resource” which can help citizens to reach a competent decision on the issue at hand. Inversely, when these circumstances are not in place, representation might actually undermine the quality of citizens’ judgments.

To make these arguments, I will look at referendum campaigns through the conceptual lens of the “representative claim” as developed by Michael Saward. This allows a shift in attention away from the traditional focus on the talker and towards the listener. Rather than attempting to attain the goals of full information and equal voice during the campaign, we should instead focus on increasing the capacity of ordinary citizens to deliberatively and competently accept or refuse the claims that are made by various elected or unelected representatives, as well as enable them to expose claims which are manifestly unfounded or manipulative. This requires giving attention to the background conditions in which the different claims are made and leads to questions of how the broader public sphere is structured and regulated.

About the speaker

Ronald Van Crombrugge (°Jette, 1992) graduated in 2013 as a bachelor of laws with a minor in political sciences (magna cum laude). He received his master's degree of laws in 2015 (magna cum laude), option research master. Since October 2015 he is working at KU Leuven's Institute for Constitutional Law, where he specialises in the law of politics.

As part of his current research, Ronald is evaluating the law on referendums from the perspective of deliberative democratic theory. The research centers on two questions: first, whether mechanisms of direct democracy such as the referendum have a useful role to play in a deliberative democracy, and second, how the law on referendums can be adapted to better accommodate the principles of deliberative democracy.

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