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Direct Democracy Strikes Again

NEW YORK – Once again, a referendum has turned a country upside down. In June, British voters decided to take their country out of the European Union; now, a narrow majority of Colombians have rejected a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombians have taken a leap in the dark – and perhaps a leap back into the violent abyss of never-ending war.

Populists everywhere are no doubt celebrating the outcome as another clear rebuke to self-interested elites who have “rigged” their governments against the people. And the people, they say, should have a direct voice in the important decisions affecting their lives – apparently even decisions about war and peace.

But if there really is a “democracy deficit,” as populists claim, the increased use of referendums is no cure for it. On the contrary, referendums tend to make matters far worse, and can undermine democracy itself. It’s an old story: Napoleon III, for example, used such a vote to reconstitute his elected presidency into the imperial title his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, had held.
After the rise of fascism and during the Cold War, the world’s democracies seemed to recognize that referendums and plebiscites are the handmaidens of autocrats seeking to concentrate power. Adolf Hitler used plebiscites in the Sudetenland and Austria to consolidate the Third Reich. And, after Hitler, Joseph Stalin used referendums to incorporate Eastern Europe into the Soviet bloc.

More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin organized a snap referendum in Crimea that supposedly justified his annexation of the territory. In the tradition of Napoleon III, Hitler, and Stalin, he used direct democracy to pursue dictatorial ends.

To be sure, not all recent referendums have been instruments of dictatorial power. But mendacity and deception worthy of the dictators of the 1930s was certainly on display in the United Kingdom’s “Leave” campaign, and in the opposition to a Dutch referendum in April to approve an EU-Ukraine free-trade and association agreement.

In the UK, Boris Johnson cynically helped lead the Leave campaign with an eye toward unseating, and potentially replacing, Prime Minister David Cameron. But, when Cameron resigned in July, Johnson’s fellow Brexiteers betrayed him, so he had to settle for becoming Foreign Secretary in Theresa May’s new government.

In the Dutch case, Euroskeptics, seeking to drive a wedge between the Netherlands and the EU, exploited the 2014 tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which departed from Amsterdam and was shot down over Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists, leaving a deep wound in the Dutch public psyche.
The British, Dutch, and Colombian referendums all required that complex issues be radically simplified, which played to populist leaders’ strengths. In the Netherlands, voters were asked to approve or reject an agreement that runs to more than 2,000 pages, which surely no more than a handful of voters have actually read. Instead, most voters relied on populist leader Geert Wilders’ glib talking points, which provided a less-than-candid assessment of the issue.

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Similarly, the Brexit referendum posed a question with so many ramifications that no voter could possibly have considered them all. And in the Colombian plebiscite, voters would have needed a deep understanding of faraway South Africa’s truth-and-reconciliation process, and post-apartheid history, to assess the peace agreement properly.

Representative government was created to manage these types of complex issues. We vote for representatives – either individually or as part of a political party with a relatively predictable platform – to advocate public policies that we support. But, as Edmund Burke famously pointed out, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The populist campaigns in the major referendums this year have differed in important respects. For example, Colombian opponents of the peace deal appealed to universal norms of justice for war crimes committed by the military and the FARC, not to national particularism, as in the UK and the Netherlands. Nonetheless, they have all been motivated by a desire to scuttle governments and institutions that they oppose. And they have all been willing to follow the tradition of dictators, and to resort to smears, distortions, and fantastical claims.

In the real world, messy compromises are a fact of democratic life; and the only thing messier than a negotiated peace is war itself. As long as compromises do not violate individual rights, citizens in democracies accept them as necessary for the sake of functioning governance. When we reduce a peace agreement, a trade treaty, or EU membership to a single sentence or sound bite, genuine democratic debate gives way to the political noise of opt-outs, logrolling, and side deals.

This is arguably a particularly ill-advised time to hold referendums, because democratic malaise has taken hold in many countries since the 2008 financial crisis. In the EU, mainstream politicians must accept some responsibility for expediently blaming “Brussels” for every problem, or for fudging the truth about what EU membership or association agreements with neighbors actually mean. Mainstream leaders, to some degree, set the stage for the populist demagogues who are now trumping reasoned argument with angry, nativist appeals.

Plebiscitary governance has little to recommend it. In the decades since California introduced statewide “ballot initiatives” – which can be proposed by any voter and require a simple majority to pass – the state became practically ungovernable. Current California Governor Jerry Brown has spent the last eight years cleaning up the fiscal mess the state’s voters created back in 1978, when they passed Proposition 13, lowering property taxes by 57%.

Europe could soon become as dysfunctional as California. This month, Hungary’s increasingly autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, held a referendum to oppose a common EU migration policy. If more EU countries resort to such initiatives, European integration could be thrown into reverse. One need only listen to the politicians calling for referendums to know where direct democracy can lead.

Nina L. Khrushcheva, the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Nina L. Khrushcheva,

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