The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, there is such a thing as too much democracy

On Brexit, a short anti-anti-anti-democratic argument.

Former London mayor and Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson walks through the Houses of Parliament and Portcullis House in central London on June 27. (Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse)

Let me see if I can get all of these Brexit reactions straight.

First, there’s the simple fact that markets have given a big short-term thumbs down to the victory of the “Leave” campaign. Then, for a variety of reasons that Neil Irwin laid out, analysts are souring on the long-term prognosis as well.

This, in turn, has led a rising tide of anti-democratic sentiment from pundits arguing that this was a ridiculously stupid and uninformed vote:

And this, in turn, has led to anti-anti-democratic columns like this one from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi:

Were I British, I’d probably have voted to Remain. But it’s not hard to understand being pissed off at being subject to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Nor is it hard to imagine the post-Brexit backlash confirming every suspicion you might have about the people who run the E.U.
Imagine having pundits and professors suggest you should have your voting rights curtailed because you voted Leave. Now imagine these same people are calling voters like you “children,” and castigating you for being insufficiently appreciative of, say, the joys of submitting to a European Supreme Court that claims primacy over the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
The overall message in every case is the same: Let us handle things. …
It doesn’t mean much to be against torture until the moment when you’re most tempted to resort to it, or to have faith in voting until the result of a particular vote really bothers you. If you think there’s ever such a thing as “too much democracy,” you probably never believed in it in the first place. And even low-Information voters can sense it.

So consider this an anti-anti-anti-democratic argument, because Taibbi mangles his argument so badly that I wonder if it was intended to be some Swiftian satire gone very, very wrong.

Let’s be clear: Of course there’s such a thing as “too much democracy.” I, for one, am very happy that neither the federal judiciary nor the Federal Reserve is elected. I’m even happier that constraints on the government, like, say, the Bill of Rights, are not up for a vote. And I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that a governing system of endless referendums has not necessarily made California a better place to live.

If this means that Taibbi accuses me of not believing in direct democracy, fine by me. I’m a big fan of liberal representative democracy, which happens to be the system of government of most democracies in the world. And I would not be all that keen to move to a system in which major policies are decided by referendum after referendum.

This does not mean, of course, that the results of the Brexit referendum should not be respected. As President Obama once said, “elections have consequences.” The Cameron government set up a referendum as its decision rule, and that decision should be respected.

But it’s also fair to point out that the negative consequences of the vote, as well as the mendacity of the leaders of the Leave campaign. They now admit that they have no plan for Brexit, and even if they weren’t admitting it, E.U. officials are delighted to point it out to them, And as I wrote last week, it’s entirely fair to tie this kind of outcome in the United Kingdom to the likely outcome in the United States if Donald Trump were to win in November.

I admire Taibbi’s zeal in defending democracy, and he is absolutely correct to point out that democracy as an idea needs to be defended the most when it leads to really stupid decisions. But pointing out that Leave was a really stupid decision isn’t anti-democratic. It’s just a fact of life. And asking whether big policy decisions should be decided by referendums strikes me as a perfectly sensible debate to have.

Being skeptical of direct democracy is not the same thing as being skeptical about representative democracy.