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Colombians voted in a referendum this weekend on a peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group that has been at war with the government since 1965. About 50.2 percent of those who voted were against it, but only 39 percent of the public voted. In Hungary, a referendum on European Union refugee quotas resulted in 98 percent of the public voting for the government’s position, but only about 32 percent participated in the vote. At least 50 percent of voters must participate for a referendum to be valid in Hungary. In Britain, which held the referendum that got the most public attention in recent times, 52 percent of people voted to leave the EU, with a turnout of 72 percent.

Referendums are extremely common in European countries as well as in other regions. When very important issues are involved, it is seen as appropriate to let the people make the final decision. This is very much the opposite of the U.S. federal system, where the Constitution deliberately leaves no place for referendums. The American notion of government differs from those in Europe (and Latin America). Given the rising number of important issues being decided by referendums in Europe and elsewhere, the nature, strengths and weaknesses of the referendum must be understood. These referendums can redirect history.

First, please note that in the Colombian referendum, only about 20 percent of those eligible to vote voted against the treaty. In the Hungarian case, where the opposition knew they couldn’t win outright, but could block the referendum by asking people to stay home, almost everyone who voted supported the government position. But a combination of those who opposed the government and those who simply did not vote won the day. The Hungarian model is designed to avoid the kind of outcome we saw in Colombia. However, I would guess that had a majority voted in Hungary, the government still would have won. A coalition of the opposed and the indifferent probably blocked the majority. In the U.K., only 37 percent of voters voted for Brexit – and that was enough to take Britain out of the EU.

The foundation of the referendum is that on vital matters, the people should have the final say. In theory, this perfects democracy. Representatives are able to make routine decisions, but the people themselves directly decide crucial issues, like the end of a civil war, a national policy on immigration or membership in the European Union.

There are three problems with this system. First, there was a romantic tradition of thinking of the people as a single united entity. As we all know, nothing could be further from the truth. The people are usually deeply divided. Second, the people are also frequently indifferent. The most striking thing in the three cases I cited is how few people actually went to the polls. Third, the issues presented are not just complex, but rarely lend themselves to a yes or no answer. The part of the public that understands the issue is forced to vote yes or no, when its usual position is neither. The part of the public that is comfortable voting yes or no very often doesn’t understand the issue, nor the consequences of what they are voting for. They are not stupid (although that’s what the losing side usually thinks), they have merely not devoted the time needed to understand the issue, usually because they are busy doing things that are more important to their lives.

Holding referendums assumes that the public is as passionate about political and social issues as the politicians, journalists, professors and so on. In general, a large portion of the public has a greater sense of balance about what is important in their lives than those passionately moved by the issues. And frequently, matters of great urgency to those who frame referendums are matters the voter feels indifferent toward. Therefore, many stay home, and others vote casually. The entire notion that the nation will mobilize to decide important issues is fundamentally flawed. For most, the kind of issues being voted on – even peace with the FARC – simply do not matter as much as the civic-minded think they should. And many voters regard the civic-minded as completely unrepresentative of and irrelevant to the standards they set for their own lives.

In Europe and Latin America, the state is at the center of society, and politics at the center of the state. I recently went to a meeting in Mexico where I was fascinated by the degree to which business issues, which in the United States would have nothing to do with any government body, were referred back to ministries in Mexico City. In these societies, politics is seen as vital in shaping everyday life. Still, their voters are unmoved. Even in the U.K., less than three-quarters of voters cared to vote on Brexit, and that is taken to be an extremely high turnout. When it comes to referendums, the theory of the European and Latin American state and the reality of everyday life collide. The notion of the people as a single organism is part of the European tradition of romantic nationalism, but it is not connected to reality.

The American founders took a completely different approach to government. In their view, government was not the center of society, and politics was not the most important thing. Government was a necessary evil that had to be kept to the margins of society. The center of things was civil society, which, for the founders, included businesses, churches, fantasy football leagues and all the rest that made up the texture of everyday life. Today, the concept has degenerated to small political groups on the fringes of society.

The founders did not trust politicians. They also did not trust the people. They understood that the public could be as venal, ignorant and corrupt as politicians. They also understood that the public could experience as much fractiousness and mutual hatred as politicians. There was nothing magical in the people, save that the people were to form a more perfect union. And that union had certain characteristics. First, it limited the power of the state over society. Second, it structured the state so that it could accomplish little. The founders’ goal was political paralysis to protect society, and they most surely would not regard copious legislation as a good sign.

They also created a republican, not a democratic form of government. The people could vote, but only for people to represent them. Even the president is not elected directly, but rather through an electoral college. They wanted to keep the people, or any one faction of them, from directly controlling the government. Their view of the people was that they ought to be busy with their private lives, and if politicized, were likely to wreak havoc. But they gave the people the power to select their representatives in various configurations. Those representatives would participate in a government paralyzed by two legislatures with different rules, a supreme court and a president, none under the slightest obligation to be reasonable.

For all this to work, the representatives had to be people who did not crave power, or else the barriers could be broken. The founders wanted representatives who had private interests and saw politics as a duty rather than a career. They sought some way to force the indifferent public to select their intellectual and moral superiors. And that is the weakness of the American system. People rarely recognize superiors and when they do, they don’t like them. They want to elect people like themselves. And they do.

The difference between the two systems is not superiority, but complexity. The American system of government is extraordinarily complex, and its complexity makes life difficult for the ambitious. In Europe and Latin America, government bodies are incredibly complex, but the main political system is elegantly simple with a parliament, a prime minister and occasionally a referendum. That is one thing the U.S. federal government does not have (although states do and I rarely have any idea what I’m voting on).

The American founders would have been appalled by a referendum, much as Europeans and Latin Americans are appalled by features of the American system. But I will argue that the founders were right on referendums. They do not yield the will of the people, but their chaotic discord. They are a way for representatives to evade responsibility, not a way to empower the nation.

This article originally appeared on and is republished with permission.


3 Comments on "The Use and Abuse of Referendums"

  1. “In the U.K., only 37 percent of voters voted for Brexit – and that was enough to take Britain out of the EU”

    And in the USA only 28% of voters voted for Obama, that was enough to saddle the country with him as President for another 4 years. At least he managed to get over a quarter of voters to come out for him, the Conservative government in the UK managed to guarantee five years in power with only 24.3% of the electorate backing them. Given the amount of legislation that can be pushed through in five years the argument that momentous events can be shaped by only a few voters in referendums can be extended equally to democracy in general. If you don’t turn out in a referendum you either aren’t fussed about the outcome/think it doesn’t matter anyway, or you’re an idiot, end of story. The same goes for national elections. I take the point about the US system but really if the aim is to paralyse decision making so nothing gets done why even bother?, that is clearly the point half of US citizens have reached given their apathy.

  2. I do think the Black and White yes or no question in a referendum can pose problems. After voting to leave the EU on June 23rd politicians are still arguing over whether people voted for a “hard” or “soft” Brexit. Should there have been supplementary questions? Should there have been a provision that as this was a Major change then a two thirds majority should have been necessary for any change? On some important things like the death penalty this is deemed not be fit for a referendum and only Parliament should decide. Those who call for a referendum no doubt bank on the result they want and I suspect as polls have suggested a majority would call for the restoration of the death penalty it has never been tested.

    It seems whether you have a referendum or an election neither yield the will of the people as we are so fractured and split that there are as many opinions as there are possible solutions. In the case of the EU referendum some will argue it was only borne out of Cameron trying to win right wing support and secure an election win. His use or abuse of referendu

  3. His use or abuse of referendums badly backfired

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