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Too big for democracy?

About the author

A freelance writer and editor based in London, J Clive Matthews is Managing Editor of openDemocracy's EU and deliberative democracy blog, dLiberation.

In the real world he has co-authored two books and edited numerous others (ranging in subject-matter from movies to modern Russian politics), been acting editor on a glossy history and travel magazine, editorial consultant for a big name women's magazine, a freelance news editor for AOL UK, worked in both the House of Commons and the European Commission, and contributed to publications as diverse as Starburst and the Times Literary Supplement.

Best known as Nosemonkey online, he has been blogging about British and European politics daily for several years both at his own blog and sites like The Sharpener, General Election 2005 (now defunct), AgoraVox, France 24 and the Washington Post / Newsweek's Postglobal, as well as about movies for the BBC, and has been shortlisted for blog awards by the likes of the Guardian, Deutsche Welle International and the Weblog Awards, amongst others.

In the latest part of his ongoing series about the role of democracy in the EU, Paul Davies gave the following quote from Aristotle:

"a great state is not the same thing as a state with a large population. But certainly experience also shows that it is difficult and perhaps impossible for a state with too large a population to have good legal government." - Aristotle, Politics, 1326a

It's an assertion that bears much consideration - especially when combined with the language difficulties of the EU.

One of the oft-repeated aims of the Tomorrow's Europe poll was to create a microcosm of the EU - but not the EU as it actually is. Instead, this was creating an EU with language barriers broken down to enable greater communication and facilitate understanding. It was, in other words, creating an EU where political discourse and debate could be truly pan-European.

The end result (PDF) was a slight shift in opinions, with the extremes weakening in most cases as opinions mellowed towards the centre ground. It is the result you would expect - because there wouldn't be such a broad range of political opinions if there wasn't some merit to most of them, and any sensible discussion with people of opposing views should, let's face it, lead to slightly less vehemently held opinions as appreciation of alternative arguments rises.

But, let's face it, even in democracies where everyone speaks the same language, there's precious little in the way of agreement - and frequently a lot of strongly-held party loyalties, even where the actual policy differences between the parties is only very slight. So why does political rhetoric get so heated?

Well, one of the assumptions of the Tomorrow's Europe poll is simply that people don't discuss politics with people of opposing views that often. When reading newspapers or watching the news, we're largely only exposed to soundbytes and brief, strongly argued opinions on the best policies. In an attempt to get their points of view across before we all lose interest, politicians necessarily have to avoid the subtleties of the matter, and talk in broad, sweeping generalisations phrased to sound as distinct as possible from those of their opponents.

In other words, does the nature of modern democracy - with franchises of tens of millions - itself preclude the possibility of rational debate? Is the EU's multilingual problem really a problem at all, or just a smoke-screen hiding the key problem?

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