A few things have gone very wrong when a Google search for “2016 bad year” turns up twice as many results as any other year in the 21st century. While charismatic calamities like the election of Donald Trump may have dominated the headlines, another force that is potentially more damaging if only occasionally as headline-grabbing, lies behind many of the troubles of 2016. This is the resurgence of what both Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee (in a rare point of agreement) called a tool of “dictators and demagogues:” the referendum.
Long the balm for the politician keen to avoid making a tough decision, referendums have become a fixture of 2016’s political scene from the United Kingdom to Colombia. But 2016 has made transparent not just the devastating consequences referendums impose upon ordinary people, but also their essential failure at their alleged core function: to accurately and meaningfully embody “democracy.” In both the UK and Colombia they have spelled only disaster.
The graph of the pound’s performance against the dollar since June 23, 2016 has looked something like the flight path of an out-of-date space station tumbling back to earth. Meanwhile, Kaci Kullmann Five, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, looked surprisingly morose this October as she announced that Juan Manuel Santos had won the Nobel Peace Prize for a peace deal in Colombia which unravelled at the ballot box just a week before. Brexit, very possibly the largest geopolitical shift since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the probable continuation of a civil war in Colombia that began at a time when Barry Goldwater was still a major player in US politics, is not a bad tally for a year’s worth of referendums.
The impacts of referendums, though, go much further than the first-order ramifications of any given vote. Rather, as we’ve seen in the United Kingdom, the result of referendums may constitute a basic challenge to the legitimacy of the government itself. Brexit was followed two hours later by the resignation of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and bitter leadership struggles on both sides of the aisle. Britain has seen Cameron’s “modernized” conservative party return to its more nativist roots under Theresa May, who seems to prioritize restrictions on immigration over single market access. Meanwhile the opposition Labour party has spent the months since Brexit embroiled in internecine conflict and is currently led by Jeremy Corbyn, in whom 75 percent of Labour members of Parliament claim to have no confidence.
Brexit was decided on a razor-thin margin of 52-48 in a campaign where only 22 percent of voters thought they understood the issue “well or very well.” Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary and prominent Brexit campaigner, famously insisted that “Britain is tired of experts”. In Colombia, though, the potential close to a decades-long civil war through a referendum was thrown into jeopardy by a margin of 54,000 votes out of an electorate of almost 35 million. This was very possibly a result of Hurricane Matthew dampening turnout in pro-peace agreement coastal areas. The faux-certainty of a democratic mandate that referendums provide are premised on flawed campaigns and often nearly meaningless margins.
Yet the greater problem is that, even if campaigns are conducted perfectly and truthfully and margins are clear, referendums suffer from the fundamental flaws of simplifying complex issues and diffusing accountability away from political leaders. As Britain is discovering, Brexit as a “yes” or “no” question was about as incoherent as Prime Minister May’s anodyne yet ruinous refrain “Brexit means Brexit.” It took fewer than 24 hours after the vote for leading campaigner Nigel Farage to describe the core Brexit promise (that he himself had made) to reallocate UK$350 million to the National Health Service a “mistake.”
It is ultimately a lie sold to voters throughout the world that democracy is better expressed in referendums than in representative democracy. Representative democracy has underpinned virtually every successful democratic experiment from the American foundation to the democratic transition of most post-Soviet European states just over two decades ago. While elections are far from perfect and may, as recently, produce what many consider calamitous results, they remain a far more just and successful way of making collective political decisions than referendums. Unlike referendums, elections allow for a multiplicity of viewpoints to be expressed, hold leaders genuinely accountable, and foster political stability rather than chaos.
It’s easy to dismiss legitimate objections to referendums as elitist criticisms of democracy or a refusal to accommodate the will of the people. Yet democracy itself is a value with many different meanings, not all of which are best channelled through referendums. All this suggests that there is a better way to make major national decisions than referendums that throw political parties into chaos, nations’ futures into jeopardy, and the year 2016 into the position as one of the worst in recent memory.