Features, Politics

Direct Democracy and Its Discontents

The word “democracy” has a kind of halo around it. In right-thinking circles, criticism of democracy seems inherently indecent. This is not completely unwarranted. There is a good deal to be said in favour of the various forms of parliamentary democracy that have evolved around the world in the last 250 years. Whilst the causes of (previously unthinkable) increases in living standards around the world in that period are debated by historians, there is a plausible case that parliamentary democracy is at least one of the ingredients of that transformation. And democracy is not merely a means to the end of increased GDP. It also embodies fundamental values which we hold dear, such as respect for the dignity and liberty of the individual.

Whilst parliamentary democracy clearly has a lot going for it, direct democracy is something quite different. Of the 196 countries in the world 123 are representative democracies. None are direct democracies. Switzerland – or rather some cantons within in – comes closest, but is still nowhere near a pure direct democracy.

What is direct democracy? It is a process of political decision-making that puts power directly in the hands of the populace. It either removes the layer of elected representatives in the process, or reduces their power over it. This can take, as we shall see, a number of different forms.

In an age where the views of distinguished economists the world over are brushed aside, it is unlikely that the views of political philosophers will carry much weight. But those views have clearly been taken into account – albeit not necessarily consciously – in the universal rejection of direct democracy as a form of government. The most obvious objection to direct democracy is Plato’s point that instead of putting power in the hands of the people it in fact puts power in the hands of demagogues. Relatedly, direct democracy heightens the risk, pointed out by J.S. Mill, of the tyranny of the majority, or indeed of a highly motivated minority.

It is not only philosophers who object to direct democracy. If people were asked whether they believed that all governmental decisions ought to be taken by way of referendums – if there were a referendum about referendums – they would almost certainly say No, for two related reasons. The first is that it would not be practicable. Most people do not have the time or inclination to consider all of the issues that are relevant to such decisions. The second is that elected representatives ought to make those decisions. Those representatives have, it is thereby implied, a greater degree of expertise in doing so. And party politics means that when they are elected those representatives subscribe to a set of policies which will inform how that decision is made. They will not have free rein, once elected to decide how they wish. This is why party discipline, whilst no doubt frustrating for some of the more independent-minded MPs, is a critical component in legitimizing indirect democracy.

The year 2016 has provided us with not one but three excellent examples of the dangers of direct democracy: Brexit, the selection of Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, and the nomination of Trump as candidate for the Republican party in the US. Before turning to the EU referendum it is worthwhile considering the lessons of the Corbyn and Trump examples. They illustrate the dangers of direct democracy not at national level but in terms of the rules whereby political parties choose their leaders.

Jeremy Corbyn

First, there is the Corbyn leadership of the Labour party, which was re-affirmed on 24 September 2016. As is well known, this followed changes in the Labour party rules in 2014 whereby members and affiliates of the party could vote for a leader, and their votes would be worth the same as those of Labour MPs themselves. Prior to that, Labour MPs’ votes counted for a third, those of the members for another third, and those of trade unions for another third. Following the changes, there is now an initial selection process such that (i) the candidates must be MPs themselves and (ii) they must have the support of 15% of Labour MPs. Once they have cleared that hurdle, it is up to the members and affiliates as a whole to decide. Corbyn has a large following amongst the young, and they have flooded the party, and ensured that he is a leader of a party where the majority of MPs do not support his leadership.

I do not wish to criticize Corbyn or his policies here. The point is that it is anomalous that the leader of the Labour party has views at variance with the vast majority of its MPs. If we are to have elected representatives at all, it makes sense to give them more power than party members in choosing the leaders of those parties. The whole rationale of a system of elected representatives is that a pyramid is created, in which power is delegated upwards. It is illogical, in such a system, to revert to a direct democratic system when choosing the leader of a party. Yet there have been reports that the Labour National Executive Committee will dilute yet further the level of initial support from MPs which would be necessary for the process of selecting a leader from 15% to 10%.

If Labour MPs had a significant say in choosing their leader, their choice would necessarily reflect the preferences of their constituents, and would be more likely to reflect the ‘general will’ than the votes of highly motivated individuals who have joined or become affiliated with the Labour party for their own ideological ends. So far, of course, the Labour party has not imploded, but should it come to power the tensions between its MPs and its leadership would be impossible to mask.

Second, there is Trump. He was elected as President by the electorate at large, under the electoral college system. There has been much comment on the absurdities of that system. However, there has been little focus on the prior stage of his selection as Republican party nominee. This is a more extreme example of the Corbyn problem. Although there is a democratic process within the Republican party, there is no need for the party nominee to either be an elected representative at any level, or to have the support of any such representatives. The presidential nominee need not have any skin in the game at all. The system lends itself to a takeover by an opportunist demagogue such as Trump. If the selection process included requirements such as those of the current Labour party rules for a first filtering process this would have ensured that the nominee would have had to become a representative, and gain the respect and acceptance of at least some his peers. It is unlikely that Trump would have passed through those filters, or indeed that he would have had the inclination to do so.

Third, there is the EU referendum. It is well known that it was not binding on Parliament. But it has created a presumption that its result will be implemented. It is a perfect example of the kind of decision which should not be subject to a referendum, for two principal reasons. The first is the vast complexity and technocratic nature of the subject matter. The second is the far-reaching nature of the consequences. A referendum as to unilateral nuclear disarmament would also have significant consequences, but the logic of nuclear deterrence is obvious. By contrast, the subject matter of the EU referendum was nothing if not complex. Understanding what exactly the EU is and does, and how (if at all) the UK benefits from it is a major undertaking. As it happens an enquiry was carried out by the civil service into every aspect of the UK’s membership of the EU, the “EU Balance of Competences” review, which consisted of 32 volumes, based on 2,300 pieces of written work. This exercise, which was conducted in 2012 to 2014, and resulted in a broadly favourable view of that relationship, illustrates quite how much research needs to be done before a considered view can be reached on the matter.

Should a referendum be held on a subject which the majority of the electorate will not be well informed about, and which has drastic consequences if the answer is wrong? The question, it appears, answers itself.

There are three counters to this argument. The first is that most people, when they vote in local or general elections, do not conduct particularly extensive research, nor is the process predicated on their so doing. This is true, but there are significant differences between a general election and the referendum. The first is that parliamentary democracy depends to some extent on voters voting in what they consider to be their self-interest. If they do so the result will mirror the interests of the majority, at any rate as they perceive them. Of course voters often vote on the basis of what they consider fair even if that is against their narrow self-interest (in terms of taxation for instance), and that is all well and good. The point is that in a general election it is not too hard for voters to take a view on what is in their interest, or what is fair. The decision in a general election is, in one sense complex, but the issues are very familiar ones, which are scrutinised by the media, and debated with particular force every five years. Furthermore, they are the kinds of issues which we can relate to in our everyday experiences. That experience may be as important, if not more so, than a course of study.

By contrast, the question of whether it is in the national interest for the UK to leave the EU requires knowledge about a plethora of complex issues. To take only one, albeit critical issue, that of whether the UK would be able to negotiate a satisfactory trade deal with the EU and other parts of the world – and if so within what time frame – it is simply not the type of issue which most of us have knowledge of. There is no reason why we should. These are not matters that form part of the normal political discourse. They are technocratic issues.

This leads to the second objection which might be raised against my view, which is that membership of the EU cannot be categorized as a purely technocratic issue. It is an issue which has profound implication for democracy. It is true that the successive EU treaties have had political and constitutional implications, and that it may have made sense, accordingly, for referendums to have taken place on various Treaty changes. But those Treaty changes gave rise to a manageable set of issues to consider. And if a Treaty change is rejected, that just leaves one with the status quo, i.e. the treaty as it was before the change.  It leaves open the possibility of amending the changes so as to deal with people’s concerns. It doesn’t do what this referendum has done, which is take away the Treaty itself.

This leads to a third objection, which is: if the issue of EU membership is not a proper one for a referendum, does it follow that we are locked into the EU forever? No. If people feel strongly about a given issue, parliamentary democracy is a means whereby their views can be heard. Only a small minority of voters saw EU membership as particularly important – it has always ranked quite low on their list of priorities – which is why the Leave campaign will go down as one of the most successful political campaigns in history. It normalized what was once a peripheral view.

A lesson we have learnt from the EU referendum is that one of the key differences between direct and representative democracy is that in a pure direct democratic process such as a referendum, no-one is accountable. Because no representatives were elected as a result of the referendum, no-one is left holding the can. The Leave campaign did not formulate any plan as to what kind of Brexit should be implemented. It did not do so because it did not have to do so: it was promoting a mere idea, and not a representative who would have to implement it. It thus avoided the key dilemma currently confronting the government between a pointless soft Brexit and a highly damaging hard Brexit.

Representatives are in a position to weigh the pros and cons of the various alternatives, and also weigh in the balance competing interests of different social groups, and take an ‘all-things-considered’ view of complex issues. The mechanism of a referendum does not allow for, or compel, this process to take place.

London Brexit/pro-EU protest March 25, 2017

It might be said that there is something inherently elitist about parliamentary democracy. This is true. In placing representatives ‘above’ those they represent in the pecking order, it is inherently elitist. Implicit in support for parliamentary democracy is a distrust of the ‘people’, or of their ability to answer complex questions, particularly in the context of referendums which necessarily simplify the issues. The creation of the Single Market, for example, was a massive technocratic exercise, which led to a drastic reduction of bureaucracy. Instead of there being 28 different sets of regulations for widgets, there is now one such set, which radically facilitates trade. This was brought about by the dedicated efforts of politicians and civil servants who acted in the national interest, often in obscurity. They formed, in one sense, part of an elite. It is difficult however for Brexiters to complain as to this elitism. None of them wish to abolish parliamentary democracy, and many of them hold themselves out as staunch defenders of it.

What implications does the above have for the way forward in the UK? It is clear that many MPs only triggered Article 50 under duress. Many are no doubt playing a long, if dangerous, game by giving Brexiters enough rope to hang themselves with.

Brexiters have assumed the moral high ground. They are the true upholders of democracy. Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph the day after the referendum, said that “Democratic self-government – parliamentary democracy – is what the modern British nation is founded on”. Yet he also said that “the result, with its very high turnout, is decisive: our decision must be enacted”. Interestingly, Moore places expertise below democracy:

Experts should, of course, be respected for their expertise. But no one is an expert where democracy is concerned. Each of us is worth only one vote.

There is no contradiction between expertise and democracy in a parliamentary, as opposed to a direct, democracy. The whole point – or at any rate one of points – of representative democratic systems is that they pool expertise in elected representatives, who have to weigh up competing interests, and act as a buffer against the potential dangers of mob rule. Nor do representatives have to rely on their own expertise: parliamentary committees have extensive access to relevant external expertise.

On the left of political spectrum, we have Brendan O’Neill writing in an article in the Spectator on 26 June 2016:

They [the Remainers] are howling against the demos; raging against the people; fuming about a system that allows even that portly bloke at the end of your street who never darkened the door of a university to have a say on important political matters. That system we call democracy.

The above commentators conflate direct democracy with representative democracy proper.

Crunch time is coming. By the end of March 2019, unless the UK’s membership of the EU is extended by agreement, a withdrawal deal will have been agreed. We also already know that Parliament will vote on it, although if the alternative is “no deal,” as the government has stated, this will be meaningless. Parliament will have two options: to either insist on rejecting the withdrawal deal, and revoking article 50, or to put the question of acceptance of the withdrawal deal to a referendum. It would be politically difficult to undo the EU referendum without a further referendum. This further referendum would not be about abstractions and mutually inconsistent fantasies. It would be about a real withdrawal deal, the contours of which are already taking shape. Brexiters generally object to this, but it is difficult to see on what principled basis they could do so. It is plain that a referendum on a concrete and comprehensible proposal is vastly preferable to one on an unsubstantiated idea. Those who object to such a referendum are committed to the proposition that one can only have a referendums on vague ideas, and not on concrete proposals. That is patently absurd.


Oliver Conolly is a barrister in London, follow him on Twitter @OliverConolly.


  1. Chester Draws says

    The essay leaves out the problem of elected representatives being elected to a system they support.

    Many people support Proportional Representation. It won’t ever get through parliament, because the MPs are against it. Those for it don’t get selected by the parties. So it appears to be far less popular than it actually is.

    Leave was never a minority view in the country. It seemed like that only because the ruling elite was solidly pro-EU.

    In general constitutional change is stymied if no recourse to direct democracy is permitted.

    If the UK had not had the Brexit vote, then it was only a matter of time before a Trump or Le Pen rode that disaffection into power. And then the Remainers would be wailing about how democracy was “broken”. Trump would not have won if the Democrats had not tried to push a deeply unpopular machine politician as their candidate. They didn’t listen to their electorate and the paid the price of that.

    Remain want representative democracy, but only if it gets the right results!

  2. Robinson says

    Your comments about Brexit are just plain wrong. It isn’t complicated at all. Brexit was simply about who governs the UK. Is it the UK Parliament or Brussels? That’s all there is to it. You need it to be complicated to make your point. It is complicated for the bureaucracy, but it’s no different to any other radical change (consider the huge mountain of paper Ted Heath signed when the UK originally joined the bloc). Change management is their occupation. They’re quite good at it.

    I wonder if you’d make the same argument about the Baltic states annexed by the USSR? Or the breakup of Czechoslovakia? When the ruling elites have moved so far from the people, refusing to offer them a reasonable choice in the matter, a referendum is the only way to gauge opinion. It works well in Switzerland.

    • Jan de Jong says

      Exactly right. Essential choices are not complicated. Let competing experts advise on consequences, by all means, but have the people choose – it’s their country.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      Quite so. The Referendum was not binding in law, but the Government of the day promised to honour the outcome. It is no more foolish for people to express a fundamental preference about membership of the EU than for people to vote for their Member of Parliament.

      Methinks a lot of the moral panic about the ‘little people making poor choices’ arises from ‘courtiers’ who thought they were at the centre of political life – only to be reminded that their grip on the greasy pole was no more secure at the top than at the bottom.

  3. Fenster says

    The author is dwelling in the world of abstract design, arguing as did the framers of the US Constitution that representative democracy is a sturdy design for living. But consider Franklin’s warning just after the drafting: a republic is not a wind up toy that you design, enable and let run. It needs to be “kept”, and that calls for certain habits, values and frames of mind. The framers understotd this fragility too.

    It seems to me that the author leans to heavily on a wind up toy argument. “Hey, representative democracy works better in theory so let us forgive its faults in practice since it makes for, despite those faults, the best of all possible worlds by definition.”

    Political elites are capable of being corrupted in many ways because they are composed of fallible human beings. When this happens representative democracy will falter and not deliver on its theoretical promise of the best possible governance. And when that happens it is possible that the public will be justifiably angry.

    One can argue that their best and perhaps only recourse is the ballot box, and they can always turn out their local representatives. But just as political systems can be ingeniously designed the corruption of such systems can also be brilliant and slippery. In such instances I doubt that a call for a return to status quo representative democratic institutions will do the trick.

    No one is saying nation states ought to revert to direct democracy. From time to time though the tree of representative government needs to be nourished by the blood of those would would corrupt it.

    • You make very good points about the need to “keep” representative democracy functional, due to the possibility of corruption of the representatives.

      However, couldn’t the same be said of the people themselves, that they too can be corrupted or blinded by fear and rage?

  4. If the powers that be had given us our promised referendum 12 years ago, we would have had the chance to vote for the status quo and stayed in the EU without having to endorse the whole federal europe project. That they did not was dishonourable and led, 12 years later, to Brexit. Moral, do not show your contempt for the people with the bait-and-switch of introducing the european constitution against the expressed will of the french and dutch people, by calling it something else and hope no one will notice.

    • Robinson says

      This is an important point that’s been missed in all this. Labour’s 2005 manifesto stated explicitly a referendum would be held on the EU Constitution. In order to avoid the referendum the EU Constitution was renamed the Lisbon Treaty, its contents essentially unchanged, allowing the Labour government to avoid having to hold a referendum.

      We were witness to the rather pathetic image of Gordon Brown sneaking in through the back door to sign the treaty some days after other countries had done so, in order to keep the bad publicity to a minimum.

      This sleight of hand has been typical of the EU over the decades and has done immense harm to both confidence in our members of Parliament and public perception of the EU project as a whole.

  5. Iain Alexander says

    This essay seems muddled.

    Plato’s point about demogogues applies to democracy in general, not only the direct form. The wealthy and educated are generally as manipulable through flattery and prejudices as anyone else (especially if they believe themselves to be immune to it).

    The distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘experts’ is a false dichotomy. ‘The people’ include a range of expertises and even recognised ‘experts’ are seldom able to find infallible solutions to the complex problems that especially characterise large societies. Titles or positions (doctor, professor, MP etc.) can make the title holder complacent and the ‘non-expert’ passive and compliant.

    Switzerland with, as the essay notes, the most direct democracy in the world is also arguably the most successful country in the world. The EU, being a process of greater centralisation, less accountability and more complexity is, without leaving the bounds of democracy, virtually the opposite of Switzerland.

    Direct democracy becomes more workable and the voices of the people more articulate, by limiting or reducing centralisation and complexity.

  6. I voted Remain but the Brexit comments are bollocks.

    If the issues were too complex for voters to decide this time around then they were too complex back on the Seventies when a referendum took us into Europe.

    • ANDREW HOYLE says

      We were the ‘sick man’ of Europe back in the 1970’s. People tend to vote with their stomachs and we voted to join for many (cold war) reasons. The same electorate that took us into Europe are the oldies who have now decided in their ‘wisdom’ to leave the EU because the UK is full

  7. Another failure in your analysis is that in championing representative democracy over referenda you ignore that we have had a general election since the referendum.

    We now have a representative government elected on the basis that it will make good on the results of the referendum.

  8. Carl Sageman says

    As usual, I find most of the comments here refreshing. The article is a worthwhile topic but is unlikely to sway views or enlighten because of its oversimplicity.

    The ancient Greeks had direct democracy. They had issues and benefits that this article glossed over. In light of rampant demagoguery today, maybe, a fellow poster is right that demagoguery is not solely attributable to direct democracy. Or, maybe, it’s worth drawing attention to how the flash mobs on Facebook fit into a direct democracy. Instead, it was another populist Trump/Brexit commentary, commonly heard from the 5th estate.

    Speaking of demagogues. Australia recently had a vote on gay marriage (estimated to cost $122m). The fifth estate used threat, ridicule, bullying, divisiveness and coercion in an attempt to appeal to the masses: Not through reason or logic, but false arguments of equality, homophobia and anti-religious propaganda. I say this as an atheist who has quite a few close gay friends that I was extremely disappointed in the 5th estate.

    Direct democracy is expensive and time consuming, as seen in Australia’s gay marriage vote. Representative democracy (through elected officials) often makes misjudgements* of what’s in the interest of the people. How many times have you heard of a party being voted out rather than voted in? Under the Westminster system, you’ll hear that frequently. It’s because representative democracies often don’t represent, they dictate and are often self-serving.

    * when I was thinking of misjudgements I wasn’t thinking of gay marriage. I was thinking of bipartisan support to give every Australian $1000 after the last GFC as a supposed solution to the GFC.

    • I concur with the comments above. The title brought me in, but it seemed to simply be a blame Brexit & Trump on …. opinion piece versus an in depth consideration of direct versus representative democracy. The discussion actually appears more in depth for the discussion. Besides, there are more grey areas. For example:
      1. Direct democracy gives you the gay-marriage examples from California and Australia — aka, the mob rules!
      2. Representative democracy comes in several flavors: the US House of Reps is based upon population while the Senate is not.
      3. The GOP primary “appeared” to be direct while the DNC primary clearly was not with the notion of super delegates. I say “appeared” for the GOP because we know know that even if super delegates were not present the DNC was “captured” with the direct democratic process only being for show which may occur within the GOP for all I know and simply has yet to be exposed.
      4. The discussion about Labor is a restricted direct democracy similar to the DNC/GOP primaries within the US and the sometimes onerous “ballot rules” for getting on state ballots.

      • Ed Bo says

        Bill: The issue of the gay-marriage referendum in California is considerably more complicated.

        The people of California voted AGAINST gay marriage — that is, they passed a constitutional referendum initiative that limited marriage in California to those between one man and one woman.

        However, a few months before (and knowing that the referendum was upcoming), the California Supreme Court ruled that the state could not restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.

        Then, after the initiative, the court ruled that the referendum process could not remove an “existing right”.

        The executive branch of the state government would not fight this ruling. Other groups tried to fight it, but the courts — all the way up to the US Supreme Court — ruled that no one but the state government has the standing to contest these rulings (which pretty much eviscerates the referendum process in US states, the whole purpose of which is to do things the government won’t..)

        • Bill says


          I realize I dramatically simplified but even your explanation proves my point. “The masses” in a direct democracy, via referendum, voted to restrict the rights of the minority — they voted AGAINST gay marriage which is what ultimately lead to the SCOTUS decision. It was SCOTUS having to step in because direct democracy (in California!) demonstrated its flaws.

          The same “the masses” could have, for example, called a Constitutional Convention and put up and won a vote banning homosexual marriage as an amendment to the Constitution (but we don’t have direct democracy allowing that to happen). Fill in your political party’s favorite cause: gun ownership/control, abortion, homosexual marriage, restriction of speech that is microaggressive, etc. Mob rule = bad for those who don’t march in goose-step with the mob.

  9. Marshall Gill says

    It is a shame that the author either ignored or glosses over the inability of the Mob to think with reason. If you have a vote on “if people should be millionaires” you will almost certainly have a majority, a large one, in favor. “Free health care” is another. Most people are in favor but if you “want in one hand and spit in the other see which one gets full faster”, as my wonderful mother used to say, you realize that wants and desires do not equal reality. How “free health care” is actually produced is beyond the ability of the Mob to discern and even beyond their care. SCOTUScare being a shinning example.

    The Mob in Athens voted for Socrates to die for “corrupting the youth”. There is a very good reason that our Founders opposed, and even feared, ‘direct democracy’.

    • Debbie says

      US citizens would never vote for “free healthcare” if the initiative also advised it would have to be paid for in ways other than new government debt (i.e., everyone has skin in the game thru taxes), and how much it would cost them.

      I suppose Ilya Somin might agree with you, but voters need not be ignorant, and ignorant voters need not vote.

      • Marshall Gill says

        A strange comment. SCOTUScare is a fantastic example of people being willing to vote for “free” healthcare. Your pretense that the average parasite cares from where the money comes, taxes, future debt, whatever, is not in evidence.

        • Debbie says

          @Marshall Gill: Your comment didn’t address the part of my point recognizing that nothing is free, and people (even those stupid Americans) wouldn’t vote for “free” if they knew what it would cost them and that they’d have to pay for it.

      • Bill says

        Stupid Americans would vote for free healthcare but they would also vote for free phones, free cars, free food, etc. Working Americans on the other hand. “Free healthcare” means Doctors are now Teachers. They never seem to realize that one reason why Teachers K-12 are paid poorly is because Education is “free.” That means the Government has to pay for it and has to do so by taking funds from somewhere. If Government takes over healthcare then Doctors will get the same “why don’t we pay our Doctors!” sympathy (of course, you’d also see medical schools go out of business).

    • Iain Alexander says

      Socrates was a shabbily dressed son of a stonemason who wanderered around Athens asking socially important and self-important ‘experts’ questions and exposing their ignorance.

      The elites of Athens, including the sophists and their students, were the initiators of his trial. The ‘Mob’ voted for his death through the influence of these people.

      The point again is that the problems of direct democracy are folded into representative democracy and that those who are called experts are often frauds and wisdom and ignorance can be found in every class.

      The success of a democracy depends on the quality of its people, hence Socrates’ mission to improve himself, to improve the moral character of the Athenians through philosophy and to separate the true experts from the frauds.

    • Bill says

      Reminds me of that british comedy skit about polling with the example of armed service.

  10. I am less familiar with politics in the UK, but here in the United States representative democracy is basically a sham. Our elected officials are not experts in any meaningful sense of the word. Corporate lobbyists write our legislation and then congress passes it, whether or not any of them know anything about the bill in question. Case in point: not a single Republican read the GOP tax plan in its entirety before voting on it. Lobbyists were scrawling things in the margins with a sharpy hours before it went to the floor. Half of these people have alzheimer’s if you believe the guy who serves as the primary pharmacist for the Senate.

    Forgive those of us who don’t enjoy abdicating direct control over legislative procedure to such “experts.”

    • Bill says

      But what is the solution? Dems didn’t read the ACA, GOPers didn’t read the Tax Bill, and every election period local voters vote on referendums that they didn’t read. It’s why there’s always a flurry of lawsuits about the Orwellian names given to many of them so that folks vote based upon what the name is (and they infer meaning) when often the name is the reverse. In 2016, my state/locale had 6 referendums listed and and when newscasters polled after the fact and explained the bill’s impact you had voters “in horror” that they had voted for. Similar to when several interviewers a few weeks ago explained to voters what “Bernie Sander’s tax bill” wanted — which they found wonderful — followed by “oh, whoops, that’s the GOP tax bill that was just signed in.”

      Thanks to social media, we live in a world where people want all their information in 140 characters or less.

  11. Debbie says

    This is a frustrating piece. Everything the author considers a threat could be considered a feature, and vice versa.

    The author fears direct democracy might let ordinary voters hijack goal-determination away from political leadership. But when leadership no longer represents the will of the electorate, it is the electorate’s duty to do just that, especially when interests are so deeply entrenched that merely changing the names of the officeholders is insufficient to align leadership’s goals with the objectives of those whom it represents.

    The author also correctly argues that ordinary voters lack technical expertise. But that is why it makes perfect sense for the ordinary members/citizens/etc. to vote on ideas and let the experts handle the details.

    • Marshall Gill says

      So if the ordinary voter decides everyone should have flying cars? There are no “experts” who can create things which don’t exist. Wealth being a fantastic example. Again, why not vote for everyone to be trillionaires and leave it to “the experts” to make it happen. And if the “experts” can not change the laws of nature, vote again?

      • Debbie says

        @Marshall Gill: But what about self-driving cars? Pollution-free cars? What about landing a man on the moon? Or Mars? Nothing exists until it does. It seems dumb, of course, but if flying cars are what the people want, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be a voter’s legitimate objective. So I guess I don’t curtsy to your strawman.

        It would be absurd to expect a package with a trillion dollars on my porch the next morning, but it would not be irrational for me to vote to be a trillionaire. Would it be irrational to expect the officeholder/expert to strive to create conditions that make it possible for me to achieve my goal of being a trillionaire? Don’t we expect that of government? Is there something wrong with that?

  12. Bill says

    I bet if we put up a referendum saying minimum wage should be $100,000/year it would pass.

  13. All forms of democratic governance have their weaknesses and potential for either failing to represent the electorate and/or failing to produce good policy. Electoral representative systems can be captured by powerful interests and/or by politicians exploiting the same weaknesses of general voter ignorance that can be a problem in direct democracy. Direct democracy can be a check on representative governance failures even if it not immune to its own possible failings.

    If you want governance and sound policy that is representative of general electorate were it to do what’s impossible, to become very knowledgeable about issues to be decided, then that could be done. We know how to get random representative samples of a population. If a representative sample of the electorate were charged with truly becoming knowledgeable, deliberating on issues and then making policy choices, then you might well have better policy than elected representatives produce, where getting elected and holding power are often the most important things driving behavior. A representative governing body randomly chosen for a specific, one-time term, would not have those considerations.

    By the way, this is not dissimilar to some elements of the original democracy in Athens. It’s also being used in some limited forms around the world. But I suspect it’s to be disliked by the the existing political power structure who can steer government to policies they prefer because it would take that power away. It might well take direct democracy to implement such a random representative deliberative democracy, which could be instituted as a parallel system to existing electoral representation to test the concept before the public.

  14. nicky says

    although I tend to agree with the author about the shortcomings and dangers of direct democracy, it is also true -as pointed out by several commenters- representative democracy has its problems too.
    What I miss in the ‘Brexit’ comments is that much of Brexit propaganda was based on the discontent about ‘foreigners’ having ‘free access’, the flow of ‘foreigners’ into the UK. This inflow is problematic, particularly the inflow of huge amounts of people adhering to an ideology with a medieval, misogynistic and -particularly- a negative, disgusted view of Western society, (we’re talking about Islam here), which in many ways changed the daily lives of UK citizens in a negative way. This is btw, not a uniquely UK problem. I think the ‘elites’, the ‘representative democracy’ completely missed that one, except for some extremist fringe groups. Personally I do not think the EU is particularly to blame there, but the perception that the EU contributed was/is there.
    (The fact that Brexit will ‘weaken’ the West, something the extremist fringe often suspects is one of the purposes of the inflow, appears somehow contradictory in this context -at least to this limited brain)

  15. Marie says

    I think Mr Connolly is right that people will eventually vote for MPs or a party that best represents their views on matters they find important in representative democracies. And one could argue that they have done exactly that in voting for Trump and Corbyn. It looks like people have seized the opportunity of voting for two men who are different from what many among the public perceive as almost indistinguishable candidates. Both parties, the GOP and Labour, would do well engaging in some self-reflection about past mistakes and whether they can honestly say that they are representing their voter base well.

    However, it can take a very long time until a suitable candidate becomes available and this reaches a level that leads to government action. In Britain, Nigel Farrage had to come along to capitalise on British EU-skepticism and it took him over 20 years to get a referendum. In the meantime, had Tony Blair had his way, Britain would have joined the Euro, making Brexit all but impossible. In Continental Europe many governments did exactly that despite strong opposition in the population. Furthermore, experience has shown again and again that many representatives are perfectly happy to campaign on certain issues only to water them down or completely ignore them as soon as they have secured the vote, at which point the public has to wait several years until it gets an opportunity to react to this betrayal.

    So Mr Connolly’s views on our representative systems seem too idealistic and somewhat analogous to the claim that science is self-correcting while ignoring the fact that this is only true in the long term, sometimes taking decades or even generations, and that a lot of detrimental developments can happen in the meantime. I think we deserve better and direct democracy provides ways to force our politicians to take note within a reasonable time frame, counteracts what I see as an increase in paternalism and push towards “enlightened technocracy”, and keeps decision makers from introducing sweeping changes to establish facts on the ground which are difficult to reverse and in the hope that the population will acquiesce after a few years.

  16. The electoral college is not an example of direct democracy. The electoral college is a check on direct democracy.

  17. What I miss in the ‘Brexit’ comments is that much of Brexit propaganda was based on the discontent about ‘foreigners’ having ‘free access’, the flow of ‘foreigners’ into the UK.

    What I miss from the Remainer side is any acknowledgement that much of their case rested on the assumption that the EU was solely responsible for keeping the peace in Europe and that without Brussels ‘foreigners’ from Europe would have declared war on us at some unspecified date since the Seventies.

    I think those who believe Europe consists largely of Nazis, Vikings and conquistadors restrained from burning our churches and ravaging our nuns by favourable trade deals and a bureaucracy that makes rape and pillage not worth the paperwork have a greater racism problem.

  18. James Kierstead says

    Thanks for this clear and forthright piece. I think there are basically two main justifications for political systems: a) performance (measured in broadly-preferred outcomes like security, prosperity, etc.) b) moral arguments (e.g. the system reflects values like equality, autonomy, or reciprocity better than others).

    When it comes to direct democracy, a) is a complicated task, partly because our dataset of direct democracies is so small, at least in the modern world. (Though I don’t think, by the way, that the small number of contemporary direct democracies means the system is necessarily bad, as you imply; 200 years ago most regimes were autocratic, which didn’t mean that autocracy was the best system.) It’s a bit bigger if we look at Ancient Greek city-states (50-100 direct democracies that we know about, maybe more in total).

    Of course, the fact that Switzerland or any other strong democracy does well doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the political system, since it may just be a result of resource endowments, history, geography, or whatever. But I think that the record of Switzerland, Athens, and other direct democracies does demonstrate that direct democracy doesn’t do much to undermine the provision of outcomes like security and prosperity. It’s not a quick or inevitable road to disaster, and indeed, it seems to be consistent with some success.

    I think the moral or normative argument is also important here, though, even when it comes to questions like expertise. We don’t have democratic votes in order to arrive at answers to empirical questions; we have democratic votes on normative issues (‘Should we leave the EU?’ and so on). Of course, empirical considerations might guide our normative decisions, and experts can tell us what they think about empirical issues (e.g. how Brexit might affect the economy). But it’s not clear that there are ‘experts’ or superior opinions when it comes to what we ought to do. The democratic system reflects our fundamental equality and moral and political beings. Ceding too may decisions to representatives (especially when they decide they’re above actually representing our views) moves us away from that ideal.

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