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Myth: The people rule

Myth: The people rule

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Myth busters

Who is really the boss in a democracy? Ask ten random passers-by on the Maastricht Wednesday market, and most likely a popular answer will be “The voter.” Indeed, this idea is reflected in the origin of the word. Demos means people in ancient Greek, and kratein is the verb ‘to rule’. According to senior lecturer of Social Philosophy Sjaak Koenis, the idea that the people rule is not only incorrect and dangerous, but necessary at the same time.

“That the people rule, is a myth in two ways. Firstly, because it is factually incorrect. Of course, on paper the people rule, but in practice our representatives in the Upper and Lower House do so on our behalf. In addition, the people do not speak with one voice. In a liberal democracy, one can hear a multitude of voices. When someone like Geert Wilders shouts that his voice is the voice of the people, he denies the multitude and he is actually claiming that there is only one voice, his voice. In this way, populists claim that they represent the masses directly. According to this logic, anyone who does not agree with the populists, is an enemy of the nation. I think that is a dangerous idea.”

“At the same time, it is necessary that people believe that they rule,” Koenis continues. “This idea, as is often the case with myths, plays an important role: the fact that citizens rule together, implies equality and provides legitimacy to the call for emancipation of groups in less privileged positions. This is a very powerful idea that inspires many people and is indispensable for a healthy democracy. All those grand ideas, such as self-determination, equality and freedom, provide a counterbalance to the obstinate practice: the representative system with its back-room politics, pragmatism and bureaucracy. Without the idealistic side, democracy would drown in cynicism and perverse incentives, without parliament and civil service nothing would ever be decided or done.”

The slogan ‘Wir sind das Volk’ indicates well just how this myth can be used in various ways. “At the end of the nineteen-eighties, the people of Eastern Germany used this slogan to demand self-determination. Today, the phrase is used in right-wing circles, such as Pegida, as a claim to their own absolute righteousness. In doing so, right-wing populists exclude people who think differently; we know how things are, so we say what happens.”

“That dynamics of exclusion are a common phenomenon in groups of people who feel threatened by the emancipation of other groups. An example is the debate about ‘Zwarte Piet’ in the Netherlands. Black Dutch people feel emancipated, equal. This group no longer wants to be discriminated against and has become – rightly so, in my opinion – angry about this issue. In a reaction to that, we see ‘white anger’, making an exclusive claim to Dutch nationality. I find this to be a better explanation than one that suggests a new kind of racism. Racism has always existed. My explanation is closely linked to the necessary side of the myth that I mentioned: the idea that we all govern this country together. The fact that there has been a counterreaction to the corresponding emancipation, I consider it a case of the growing pains of the democracy rather than a life-threatening disease.”

For those who feel that ‘Prime Minister Wilders’ or ‘President Le Pen’ is an absolute horror scenario, Koenis has a reassuring prediction: the right-wing populists cannot persist that they have a monopoly on what the people want once they come into power. “In that case, such parties will have to show more pragmatism and they will have to compromise in order to govern effectively. If they do so, their claim will lose credibility. In the worst case, it will be similar to Turkey, where a transition to a dictatorial system is taking place in the name of the people. I don’t see that happening here any time soon. I have faith in liberal democracy because we have set up our form of government very conservatively; it is reasonably insensitive to the whims of the electorate. It is actually very difficult to radically change the constitution. This requires multiple majorities both in the Upper and Lower House. Also, I don’t see a coup taking place here or in United States.”

Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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