A referendum is not our democracy

In the aftermath of Brexit, stories like these are making rounds on my social media, along with tweets like these:

This seems slightly important before you make a decision
This definitely seems to be slightly important before making a decision

I know what you are thinking, goddammit why the flaming fuck didn’t you lot look this up beforehand?! And if you are anything like me, you followed it up with some bouts of heavy drinking. But after stewing on this overnight, I realized it wasn’t their fault that they made a decision they regretted so quickly, instead it’s that referendum is an incredibly inappropriate tool in our democracy.

Paraphrasing Kent Brockman a little. Is there anything The Simpsons isn’t appropriate for?

“But wait!” Says the imaginary-person-whom-I-made-up-to-make-a-point, “Isn’t a referendum the purest form of a democracy? Each citizen gets a say in which option they prefer and the will of the majority is chosen! What could be more democratic than that?!” While that is theoretically true, like many things in this world, it comes with a large dose of butttttt.

No, not this butttttt. Stupid Sexy Flanders.

For the past several hundred years, our western style democracy has followed a form of a representative democracy, rather than a direct democracy (for reasons that I will get to in a moment). This system creates a political institution where we vote in representatives, whose full-time job is to understand the often very complex politics and policy implications, and represent our interests in the political arena. If we think the representative is doing a poor job, we can vote a different representative in the next election. In exchange for giving up this power, we as citizens are no longer required to spend much of our lives to try to understand and analyze every nuance of every potential policy implication, not only how they affect us, but also those around us. This allows us to do other things like concentrating in our fields of work, spending quality time with loved ones, or pursuing interesting personal hobbies (unless your personal hobby is to follow politics, in which case well, you are shit out of luck).

Under this political institution, a referendum like Brexit breaks the social contract we have with our government, and instead ask everyday people who have not studied the issue to weigh in on an issue that is both complex and technical. What is more, due to the size of the electorate, there is little incentive for each person to get their decision right, because we believe in the collective wisdom of the group. The danger is then for demagogical, populist leaders to come in use fear and hatred to achieve their goals. After all, it’s a lot easier to sell “Take Back Control of Our Border!” and “12 Million Turkish Immigrants are Coming!” than “We Actually Have Control of Our Borders for Non-EU Citizens Since We Are Not Part of The Schengen, and for EU Citizens We Have to Provide Freedom of Movement if We Want to Remain in the European Market Like the Leave Campaign Says We Do”, and “Turkey is not in the EU and won’t be for the foreseeable future, and no country will lose 1/7 of its population through immigration”. And really, that’s the one true tragedy of this whole drama.

“But wait!” Says my imaginary friend again, “are you saying a representative democracy is better than a direct democracy? But look at all the corruption in today’s politics! They are all in the pockets of the corrupt big businesses!” Sadly, the answer is yes, and let me first explain why before you get out the pitchforks and torches.

Too late.

John Rawls (one of my favourite political theorists) wrote in A Theory of Justice every just society needs to meet two principles:

  • Every citizen needs to have equal access to basic liberties as long as they are consistent with other people’s liberties. These liberties include freedom of conscious, speech, association, democratic rights, and personal property.
  • More importantly, Rawls argues that inequality in this just society is allowed to exist if and only if the most disadvantaged gains most of the benefit.

To illustrate his point, Rawls uses “a veil of ignorance”:

“Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world”, however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.”

Rawls argues that behind this veil, the society we would design would ensure that if we find ourselves to be the most disadvantaged when we removed the veil, we would still accept it. This means that you wouldn’t for example design a world where slavery exists despite the economic gains of slave owners, because no one would want to be a slave when the veil is removed.

So how does this apply to direct democracy? Direct democracy’s biggest achilles heel is the possibility of the tyranny of the majority, where the majority puts their interests ahead of the rights of the minority. James Madison said:

“[A] pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party.”

In a referendum, when the options are necessarily binary, it is almost impossible to not separate into antagonistic camps, as choosing for one option necessarily rejects the other option. There is no room for nuances such as “I’m unhappy with certain aspects of A, but also agree with certain aspects of it”. Using Brexit as an example, there is no option for “I’m unhappy with how the EU has been run, but I would like to remain in the long run”, or “I don’t think we need to close the borders, but I would like to have greater voice in how the EU makes a decision”. Instead, the decision was either In or Out. This means that regardless of the result, the losing side will with some justification, feel that their rights have been sacrificed in the fact of the majority. On the other hand, representative democracy is designed so that we can prevent this from happening, and minority group rights are supposed to be protected from wild populist campaigns.

Now I will agree with you that this system has done a pretty shit job lately at protecting anyone’s rights, let alone minority groups like LGBT, female, racial minorities etc. But there is no quick fix, and the real, long-lasting solution to this is through a long and hard process of political activism in the local communities, not just once every four years during the presidential election.

As a self-identified social democrat (in the political ideology sense, not the specific party sense), I’m heartened to see that Sander’s progressive campaign reached so many people in the country. I never thought I see the day that Americans would be receptive of a self-identified socialist. But this is just the beginning. If you are aching for the real changes promised by Bernie’s campaign, go out and be active in your local community, in the local elections. Don’t just turn away from politics when this election is over. Make sure that the newest generation of politicians are aware that progressive policies are viable in this country, that there is a desire for them, so that when they move to the state and federal level, progressive and positive politics is the norm, rather than the exception. It’s not as sexy as Make America Great Again, but this is the only way to promise real change.

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