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Too big for democracy?

J Clive Matthews
24 October 2007

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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