Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The crisis of the referendum as a democratic mechanism

After the Brexit referendum and the one in Colombia, both of which instead of contributing to finish a period of uncertainty have contributed to exacerbate it, most observers are seriously questioning that referendums are the best way of solving complex democratic problems. Today the New York Times has a very good piece, based on scholarly research, about "why referendums aren't as democratic as they seem." According to Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, the last round of referendums, "though voters upended their governments’ plans, eroded their own rights and ignited political crises, they all accomplished one thing: They demonstrated why many political scientists consider referendums messy and dangerous." Referendums are almost never a good idea, says a political scientist, are divisive and create instability. The issues are typically not discussed in a rational way, but "politicians or other powerful actors will often reframe the referendum into simplistic, straightforward narratives. The result is that votes become less about the actual policy question than about contests between abstract values, or between which narrative voters find more appealing." The real will of the people has little to do with what emerges from a referendum: "National referendums can also be extremely volatile, driven by factors unrelated to the issue’s merits and outside anyone’s control. Opinion polls are often misleading because people do not form their opinions until immediately before the vote. Tellingly, they often abandon those views just as quickly. Professor Marsh of Trinity College Dublin said he had found, in some cases, that “most people can’t remember any arguments for — this is about a week later — they can’t remember any arguments against, and they’re not really quite sure why they voted yes or no.” The fans of the referendum should surrender. They won't.

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