As polls show that the anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment that inflames democracies also prevails in the Netherlands, young-, as well as highly-educated people feel that it is caused not only by a growing sense of discontent but also by negligence and frank stupidity. In their believe that many people can be persuaded to vote for someone other than Geert Wilders by paying more attention to the news and the party programs, some propose an entrance exam for anyone wanting to cast their vote coming March. To which extent does this idea of an epistocracy respect the values of our democracy?
This idea has been brought up several times before, in 2002 for example, when Gerard Marlet, economist and historian, claimed that ‘the success of Pim Fortuyn proves the failing of a democracy that has gone too far’. Now that Geert Wilders’ freedom party is promoting the same anti-islamic and anti-EU rhetoric as other Western populists, the proposal of such a system is more prominent than ever. The idea seems to be especially popular among young people. According to I&O Research, 42% of all young people believe that an entrance exam is a good idea. American philosopher Jason Brennan argues in his book ‘Against democracy’ that ‘the results are not good enough’ and proposes a system in which only the ‘well-informed’ are allowed to vote. A book by David van Reybrouck*, that goes by the same title, proposes an overhaul of democracy that aims to involve citizens more in politics by means of drawing lots.
Safe to say, all seems to hint at a growing distrust in our democracy. Young people as well as highly educated people may want to believe in democracy, they fear it is threatened by the growing number of mis-informed, detached and disinterested people. To substantiate their proposed entrance exam they draw parallels with the process of getting your driving license: the roads are freely accessible, just make sure you know the rules. Of course neglecting the definition of traffic: the movement of people by vehicle, which, due to the possibility of death, is heavily regulated. Democracy, on the other hand, is defined as a state of society in which equal citizens elect a representative body. Whoever brings up such a suggestion shows only a grotesque misunderstanding of democracy; an entrance exam is merely reminiscent of the nineteenth century when only the powerful and the affluent were allowed to vote.
Nevertheless – with a healthy dose of skepticism, I should note – I decided to take the exemplary exam. This exam was posted in Vrij Nederland, it consists of thirty multiple-choice questions that aim to test my knowledge of the Dutch political system, 27 out of thirty have to be answered correctly to pass the test. Let me note beforehand: I failed, as well as my well-informed, politically active parents and four out of five members in my university debating group. The exam started of with some relatively simple questions concerning the fundamentals of our constitutional monarchy: the role of the king and the number of seats in the senate, etc. Then came the harder questions; the number of Muslims in the Netherlands, in what year Croatia joined the EU, what parties are in the EU congress, who was the founding father of the EU. In the end, I managed to answer 26 questions correctly.
Besides these two obvious failings, – namely that the proposed exam is both anti-democratic as well as too hard – rebuttals add up. For example, as a consequence of higher educated people giving the notion that their view is the correct and preferred view makes voters feel left out. The arrogance with which many discard their views as nonsense has been a crucial factor in driving them away from more conventional parties already. The entrance exam allows a heavily skewed electorate to vote on behalf everyone. Isn’t the most crucial and beautiful part of democracy the fact that a poor mother supporting a family, as well as a businessman or a professor can cast their votes? Does it really matter whether I know that there are 150 seats in the upper house, Robert Schuman was one of the founding fathers of the EU and the fact that Croatia joined the EU in 2013? Of course not, if I would find myself most attracted to a liberal ideology, I’d vote for the liberals, if I find that I can best benefit from the plans of the socialist party, I’d vote for them.
Now, I am not neglecting the fact that lower-educated people seem to vote more heavily for populist parties and are generally less interested in politics. I try to withhold myself from generalization, but these statements are proven time and time again. These people tend to be suspect to the skewed rhetoric of populist and charismatic demagogues and regarding this as true. Often party programs and political news go unread, resulting in people voting for empty exclamations, contrary to rational argument, even voting for a party that does not serve them best. As an example, the party program of the PVV, Geert Wilders’ freedom party, only counts one A-4 size paper. This program contains statements such as ‘All mosques and Islamic schools closed and a ban on the Koran.’. Of course ignoring that four constitutional rights have to be abolished, as well as destructive consequences for the economy.
To conclude, no, an entrance exam is most certainly not a great idea. It is anti-democratic and challenges the values that the Netherlands, as well as every Western democracy, respects. The disinterest as well as the distrust in politics is, however, a problem, pushing voters to right-wing populist parties that may not serve them best. In the Netherlands, lowly-educated people tend to mostly ignore society and politics. I would propose to educate more and better on the central values of our democracy, allowing people to reasonably debate and make up their mind. By giving people confidence in voters, you’ll give them confidence in our democracy.
* David van Reybrouck is a Belgian writer, philosopher and historian. I would certainly advice you to read his book ‘Against Democracy’, it proposes a very interesting view on the state of our democracy. Although I disagree with him on certain aspects, his book is certainly thought provoking.