Montesquieu Institute: from science to society

Diploma democracy: a multi layered society?

Friday, April 20 2012, 14:32
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Thirty percent of the Dutch population has a diploma of higher education, while seventy percent has not followed higher education. The Netherlands is a diploma democracy. This means that people active in the Dutch political arena have, practically without exception, followed some form of higher education. In Parliament ninety percent have higher education diplomas and in the cabinet this percentage is one hundred. Two percent of the Dutch population is member of a political party and are predominantly higher educated. The overall image is that higher educated people tend to join some form of organisation connected with issues like democracy and politics. There is a tension between democracy and meritocracy.

This causes a new political divide. The perception is that higher educated people are drawn towards issue linked to environment and education, while lower educated people tend to be drawn towards their own neighbourhood and crime as far as issue in society are concerned. The other schism concerns the gap where immigration, integration, crime and the European Union is seen as good or bad. The latter schism has a negative connotation with lower educated people. The image people with lower education have of people active in the political sphere is that these tend to pretend they work for the common good, but that they at least also keep an eye on their own good or even let this dominate their actions.

When the followers of Dutch political parties are analysed a remarkable fact can be seen. CDA and PvdA both have followers among higher and lower educated voters. This means that they have to reconcile the interests of both these groups in their political programmes. Other parties have a less difficult task. D66, Green Left and VVD all appeal to higher educated voters. PVV and SP both appeal to lower educated voters and are faced with an easier task than CDA and PvdA.

Another schism between higher and lower educated people is that the higher educated are more cosmopolitical, while the lower educated are more nationalist. Here we see a divide where D66 and Green Left are more internationalist, while PVV is more nationalist. CDA, PvdA and VVD are split on this issue. Five trends can be seen in The Netherlands and in the European Union. There is a policy of austerity. The power of the media has increased enormously, which results in more transparency. This means that  people obtain a more complete picture of society. The rise of social media also plays a role. The rise of the “result-state”, with the accompanying bills that have to be paid: value for money has become extremely important. Accountability has become a dominant issue at the expense of representation. The political discourse has changed to distrust, horror and disrespect.

What can be done to return to a more representative democracy? Citizenship can be stimulated through more education about democracy. Participation can be stimulated through new forms of influence by the electorate such as referenda. Representation can be improved through citizen-fora. Legitimacy can be addressed through fighting social inequalities. All this has to be accompanied by better communication, a better and more open mind and an understanding of the differences in roles people play in society and more mutual respect as a result of this. Finally serious effort should be made to reach more involvement of  lower educated people. This could be done by stimulating them to get involved in local politics and other local initiatives.

The discussion of this Masterclass focused on the question if diploma democracy should be regarded as a positive or negative issue. It is seen as inevitable since education gives insight into fundamental issue in society and democracy. However higher education might not be a necessary condition for participation in a democracy. Decision-making should be accessible to anyone regardless of their place in the social stratification of society. The participation of more citizens in a democracy, accompanied by a better insight might also cause a wider view on supra-national problems and cause more understanding between nations and states.