Referendums can’t solve the democracy crisis

We are living in dissatisfied times. The representative democracy which governs daily Western life is not ideal – perhaps some disenchanted voters in Europe think that democracy itself is not ideal, threatening a return to authoritarianism on the far right for the sake of some certainty. This is not an idiosyncratic moment in history; indeed, democracy is the political art of compromise, and a cynic might suggest that perennial dissatisfaction is its only product. However, the recent prominence of referendums in the political sphere has only served to sharpen democratic disappointment, no matter which way the vote swings.

While Brexit springs immediately to mind, the recent rejection of a delicate Colombian peace deal with the insurgent Farc force via referendum also sent shockwaves around the world, and the Hungarian population’s decision to reject the EU migrant quota was only judged invalid due to low voter turnout. 2016 has been a year of landmark referendums, and while they are not new innovations, a worrying trend is growing whereby difficult decisions are put to an electorate which is ill-informed, unengaged and driven by temporary rewards. The choices they make are not wrong – the process itself is simply incompatible with the representative system governing our everyday lives.

The recent prominence of referendums in the political sphere has only served to sharpen democratic disappointment

A referendum is a purely majoritarian device – the two sides of a referendum campaign play for all or nothing at all, knowing that only a majority is needed for absolute success. Given the volatility that a general election electorate can display, basing their decisions on anything from the weather to the day of the week, enacting changes not just of five-year government but of great constitutional importance shows a flippant disregard for the long-term future.

Government requires time, debate, dedication, and bureaucracy. Not all representative politicians excel in balancing these elements – only the best can maximise all four at one time, truly planting the seeds of the trees which Greek folk wisdom says only their descendants can take shade under – but all are compelled to try. A politician must invest his reputation into every decision he makes in the public eye. Anonymous and powerful, a voter in a nationwide referendum is not likely to be so constrained.

In theory, frequent referendums would be the perfect way to divine democracy, as no career-driven politician or media manager could get in the way of the public’s wishes. In a world of accelerating development and a smartphone in every pocket, perhaps this ideal is even achievable in the future. The present, however, has seen referendums on crucial topics fought on battles of prejudice and misinformation. Regardless of their results, their processes have been inadequate to satisfy the basic need for the electorate to be informed and engaged in the issue before casting their vote. They demand that complex issues be filleted into polarised, soundbite-able and national dimensions. In a globalised world which is getting more connected by the minute, an electorate limited by these constrictions cannot help but tick boxes for reasons not wholly congruent with the consequences their votes will have.

While it is used purely to absolve the conscience of representative politicians who would rather skew public perception than accept responsibility for difficult decisions, direct democracy will never be more effective than the already dissatisfying exercise of representative democracy. When representatives have been chosen, unless in times of mass constitutional change like New Zealand’s electoral amendments in the 1990s, representative government should rule – to occasionally revert to a different path is confusing and counterproductive. For the preservation of stable government, if not for the satisfaction of the public, lawmakers should stick to the devil they know and avoid the chaos that we have seen only too much of in the past year.