Manichaean Democracy, What's Wrong With Referendums
Momentous national referendums in Colombia and Britain have shown how dangerous it can be to put complicated decisions in the hands of a fickle populous.
BUENOS AIRES — Do referendums, plebiscites and other methods of direct public participation serve democracies? Are they really compatible with representative government?
Such direct votes block debate and put off a search for consensus. Instead, they deepen divisions between voters and widen chasms between political parties tasked with resolving conflicts.
In its recent referendum, Colombians rejected a peace deal between the government and the country's longstanding FARC rebel group. Before that, in a similar referendum, Britons chose to opt out of the European Union. In both cases, the results were very close. Voters seemingly considered not just the question at hand. They also evaluated the government's legitimacy.
What's wrong with citizens helping solve problems that governments are finding hard to overcome? A democracy demands participation but it also needs citizens who are willing to carefully consider the options — an increasingly unlikely proposition in today's world.
Democracy requires that people are not just familiar with alternative courses of action but also the consequences of those actions. Above all, democracy needs the kind of information that many political leaders are reluctant to provide. The fact that leaders are using referendums to boost the legitimacy of their governments suggests that something is wrong. The plebiscite has become an instrument of political marketing.
The Colombian case is telling. Complex problems divide the political system. FARC's killing of hundreds of thousands of people over the years has left many people angry. But the result was bad news, regardless of one's opinion of the peace deal. The very low voter participation muddies the legitimacy of "asking the people". The narrow margin of voters in favor of rejecting the peace deal paved the way for different interpretations of what the people "really" meant to say.
What can the elite propose now after they've already given the public the final decision-making power on the deal? A deal that has seen complex negotiations that the public has broadly been shut out of?
How were there massive demonstrations for a Yes vote just days before there was a victory for the No camp? This referendum showed the limitations of direct democracy in resolving complex issues.
Manichaean campaign formats, such as the one that prompted Britons to vote to leave the EU, have replaced the required education and enlightenment of citizens that are needed to make informed decisions. As political debate and democracy become the playthings of the chattering, or Tweeting, masses, false promises have gained sway instead.
As far as one can tell, the yes or no votes cast in recent referendums did not involve considered deliberations of any kind.
*Graciela Romer is a sociologist.