Referenda deeply undemocratic

The strange definitions of democracy continue as what Boris Johnson referred to as “a kind of hysteria, a contagious mourning” emanate from the section of the British population that wanted to stay in the European Union. Boris has said that the recent protests from crowds of young people are driven by their fears and anxieties about what the future might hold rather than “the EU project per se .”

Unfortunately, this hysteria has led to some very strange conclusions about what democracy is. One of the most bizarre is a claim that referenda are deeply undemocratic.

…Johnson said these fears were “wildly overdone” and set out his “basic truths”.

“The reality is that the stock market has not plunged, as some said it would – far from it. The FTSE is higher than when the vote took place,” he added.

“There has been no emergency budget, and nor will there be.

“But the crowds of young people are experiencing the last psychological tremors of Project Fear – perhaps the most thoroughgoing government attempt to manipulate public opinion since the run-up to the Iraq War.” He said it was time for the nonsense claims that the older generation had stolen the future of youngsters, to end.


An article on titled Brexit, Hamilton, and the limits of democracy is a great example of some of these ” psychological tremors”.

…Democracy is not the act of voting; democracy is a system of government. That’s why referendums like the one we just saw in the UK are deeply undemocratic: they overrule the government, without being able to replace it. Referendums take a complex representative democracy with checks and balances, and replace it with something much less stable, and much more uncertain.

Most of the talk about Brexit over the past week has been focused on the risk of democracy. One single vote, in just one of 28 European countries, managed to wipe trillions of dollars of value off stock markets, send the currency markets out of control, and cause expected future global growth to lurch sickeningly downwards. Worse, it caused a major uptick in overt racism in the UK, and a broad loss of faith, among Britons like myself, that the UK will ever again be globally relevant.

So, the writer believes that a referendum where the majority rules is deeply undemocratic and the result of the referendum in the UK shows that the British are overtly racist. The writer also sees democracy as risky because the majority might be wrong. It seems to me that what he is wanting is not a democracy at all. John Key is popular because he is influenced by opinion polls and gives the voters what he thinks they want. A referendum is just a more accurate and formal version of this. No government that goes against the will of the people is going to stay in government long. This writer seems to think that the government should act in a totalitarian manner for as long as they hold the government benches but only if they are following the course of action that he and the rest of the minority voters support.

 But there’s a different type of risk at play here, too, which is the risk to democracy. A lot of people think that referendums are the highest and purest form of democracy, but that is deeply, importantly false. It confuses the how of democracy with the what.

In reality, referendums, in their various forms, are a betrayal of the highest goal of democracy, which is—to be clear—the best form of government yet devised. Government is not a sequence of yes/no decisions; rather, it’s an increasingly complex and difficult job done by millions of dedicated professionals around the world.

No stable government can ever be run by referendum, not even Switzerland. And when a government calls a referendum, that’s a clear abdication of its democratic responsibilities. When Martin Wolf said that the Brexit referendum was the most irresponsible act by a British government in his lifetime, he was right.

As Ken Rogoff says, modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances; most of them had them built in from the start. A liberal democracy protects the interests of minorities and avoids making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. That’s the essence of the Federalist Papers, and it’s even more true today than it was back then.

How interesting. I thought a democracy was a democracy but apparently there are different types of democracy. If a Conservative democracy is the one that listens to the majority of the voters then that is definitely the democracy for me. If a Liberal democracy is one that acts for the minority voters then it is no democracy at all.

You’ve probably heard that Winston Churchill quote about how democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Well, I can tell you that he wasn’t talking about this kind of democracy. Churchill was a Hamiltonian democrat: a dyed-in-the-wool elitist who was pretty much the platonic ideal of a member of the ruling classes. His conception of democracy was very much tied up with noblesse oblige, and knowing best. (It’s impossible to imagine him asking the people whether or not we should fight them on the beaches.)

Yet, this “I know best” government is EXACTLY the kind of democracy that this writer is promoting. He wants a Liberal democracy where the majority interests are ignored in favour of the minority.

I grew up in Britain’s parliamentary democracy, the oldest democracy in the world. When I was a kid, parliament would vote every year on a motion to reintroduce the death penalty. Every year, opinion polls would show that the public was strongly in favor of the idea, and every year, the motion would be defeated.

In fact, the death penalty was abolished before I was born. The year was 1965, and a good 80% of the country wanted to keep it, even if the question was posed along the lines of “would you support the death penalty even if it meant occasionally murdering an innocent man.” But the House of Commons, the British parliament, voted, and the result wasn’t even close. There were 200 votes to abolish, and just 98 votes to retain it.

The fact that the House of Commons rebuked the majority of British citizens, over and over again, was not a failure of democracy. Rather, it was a triumph of a democratic system working miraculously well. Democracy doesn’t mean that the will of the majority simply gets imposed on the country. That’s the kind of tyranny we see in Turkey, not the kind of democracy which the people of western democracies have grown up admiring, participating in, and even giving their lives to defend.

Anybody who believes that black lives matter, or that love wins, understands that unless you protect the rights of the minority, you abrogate any right to claim democratic legitimacy.

So, he is saying that only people who have the right ideas can legitimately participate in a democracy.

… So here’s the problem. If you move from a democracy of the elites to a pure democracy of the will of the people, you will pay a very, very heavy price. Governing is a complicated and difficult job—it’s not something which can helpfully be outsourced to the masses, especially when the people often base their opinions on outright lies.

… Namely, democracy doesn’t work unless you have a cadre of unelected technocrats running important institutions. At least, it doesn’t work in the way that created so much peace and prosperity over the past 70 years.

…If you really believe in democracy, you don’t just kick out the elites. You take it upon yourself to put together a coherent alternative platform—one which will spread prosperity more evenly. All democracies need effective leadership, and plan beats no plan every time.

…The largest generation in America, armed with new ideals, has the demographic power to seize the reins of government and implement a nobler, fairer society.

I think this song is an appropriate ending to this strange article. What do you think?

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