Since British voters elected on Thursday to leave the European Union, signs have quickly emerged of the flaws in holding a referendum on such a messy, massive, far-reaching decision.
Politicians responsible for explaining what's at stake have admitted they may have fudged some of the consequences. Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, acknowledged Friday merely an hour after the election was called that one of the Leave campaign's key promises to voters was inaccurate. Brexit backers pledged that money the U.K. currently sends to the E.U. — supposedly £350 million ($462 million) a week — would go to the country's national health system instead. Former London mayor Boris Johnson even drove around Britain in a bus blaring that message.
On Friday, Farage called that claim a "mistake." (Kudos to the incredulous TV reporter who then followed up: "Do you think there are other things people will wake up this morning and find out aren't going to happen as a result of voting this way?")
Residents of relatively poor Cornwall, meanwhile, had been promised they would lose none of the E.U. subsidies the county heavily relies on if Britain were to leave the bloc. Cornwall officials, The Washington Post's Rick Noack writes, are now fretting that wasn't true either.
Not surprisingly, after the value of the British pound plummeted and global stocks tanked Friday, British media have also been full of stories of voters saying they regretted their decision. Some said they merely thought they were lodging a protest vote — they didn't think Brexit would actually happen. Others actually called election workers wondering if they could change their vote. This woman remarkably said every voting member of her family made a mistake:
Meanwhile, more than three million Brits as of Sunday morning had already called for do-over. And critics have recounted scathingly that the whole crisis originated because Prime Minister David Cameron was trying to escape a political bind back in 2013 — hardly a grand rationale for a massive experiment in direct democracy.
All of this was, perhaps, predictable, as some political scientists and historians have warned that a simple yes-or-no public referendum can be a terrible way to make a decision with such complex repercussions. The process looks like direct democracy in its purest form, and it was celebrated as such by many Leave campaigners after the vote. But David A. Bell, a Princeton historian writing in The New Republic four years ago as Greece was preparing for a referendum on its bailout, argues that the result of referendums is much more often anti-democratic.
He divides referendums into two categories: The first implicates fundamental questions of sovereignty (should Quebec become independent, or Scotland break away from Great Britain?). These kinds of referendums are appropriate, Bell argues: "They represent instances when sovereign power, always ultimately held by the people, but mediated by constitutional structures, temporarily reverts to the people directly, so that they can modify or replace these structures."
Then there are referendums about questions that would otherwise be handled by the legislatures the people have already elected:
It is certainly tempting to salute this second form of referendum as a means of checking the seamy practices that too often infect modern representative systems. But however much the designers of referendums claim to be acting in the name of democratic reform, their actions usually end up undercutting democratic institutions. This tendency isn’t merely incidental — it’s unavoidable given how referendums work. First, they take relatively technical issues away from legislators who have the time and expertise to deal with them, and give them to voters who do not.
Referendums also tend to make legislating in the future much harder, by casting policies as constitutional changes that are hard to dislodge. And, Bell argues, they undermine the legitimacy of legislatures by suggesting that real democracy can only come directly from the people instead.
In a world where all kinds of decisions that should be made by legislators are made by referendums instead, we get, well, California — a state where ballot initiatives rule what happens to individual bonds and bag taxes and even proposed buildings. Back in 1978, California voters generously decided in a ballot measure to cap their own property taxes in a way — amending the state constitution — that has hobbled ever since California's ability to generate revenue and create reasonable housing policy.
Last year's Supreme Court decision upholding gay marriage also underscored another drawback of referendums: Give people a chance at the ballot box, and they may also trample minority rights.
To come back to Bell's distinction about the two different kinds of referendums, the Brexit vote arguably looks a little like both. Brexit supporters certainly cast the question as one of fundamental sovereignty and "independence" from Europe (as did Donald Trump, with his praise of voters who wanted to "take back their country"). But the proposition at hand also raised the kinds of thorny debates we elect government officials to hash out: Do the benefits of the E.U. justify those payments? Will the costs of leaving cripple the British economy? Will "independence" bring new forms of instability that voters haven't even been encouraged to foresee?
Martin Kettle, an editor at the Guardian in the U.K., argued last Thursday, before the final vote, that Brexit should itself be a referendum on referendums, "now the weapon of choice for populist parties of left and right":
There may, in certain circumstances, be an argument for referendums in our politics. But the argument has to be better than that we have had some referendums in the past or that a lot of the public would like one. People will always agree they want a say. Yet it is far from obvious that a system of referendums strengthens trust in democracy. Neither Ireland nor Switzerland, where referendums are more common, seem to vindicate that. Germany’s constitution is strongly rooted in the opposite view. And if an issue is major enough to require a referendum, why is it not major enough to require a high level of turnout or an enhanced majority of those voting, as should be the norm?