In Rogoff’s view, democracy itself wasn’t necessarily the problem. But the Brexit referendum “isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics,” Rogoff wrote. “Brexiteers did not invent this game; there is ample precedent, including Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995. But, until now, the gun’s cylinder never stopped on the bullet. Now that it has, it is time to rethink the rules of the game.”
Point taken. But would there have been as much hand-wringing in recent days about the pitfalls of direct democracy, about the ignorance of voters, if the British people had voted to remain in the European Union? If, in Rogoff’s formulation, the gun’s cylinder hadn’t stopped on the bullet? If, as I suspect, the answer is no, then how much of this criticism is really about democracy, and how much is about the critics disagreeing with the verdict of popular opinion?
Britain, of course, is a parliamentary democracy, not a direct democracy. The people elect officials to represent them on policy issues big and small, and national referendums like the one this past week are exceedingly rare. But there is precedent. In fact, one was held in 1975, when 67 percent of voters endorsed the country’s membership in the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union. If Britain’s participation in the European project was worthy of being put to a direct vote in 1975, when the union was just forming, why not in 2016, when that union has grown far more ambitious? As David Cameron put it on Friday, following one of the highest voter turnouts in British history, “on questions about the arrangements for how we are governed, there are times when it is right to ask the people themselves.”
Asking the people directly may have been particularly important on the question of EU membership, since one of the major critiques of the European Union in Britain, and across Europe, is that its institutions and bureaucrats are undemocratic and unaccountable (this caricature is not entirely fair, but that’s a subject for another article). Deciding the future of Britain’s involvement in the European Union through closed-door negotiations conducted by elites, like Cameron’s with EU leaders in February, clearly proved unacceptable for many Britons who are currently fed up not just with their representatives in Brussels, but also with their representatives in London.
Where I believe British leaders went wrong is not in holding the Brexit referendum per se, but in not taking the exercise as seriously as they should have. There’s a reason Margaret Thatcher once described referendums as “a device of dictators and demagogues.” Referendums, The New York Times notes, often “distill complex issues into a simplistic choice, stoking a harsh type of populism.” When you’re asked to answer simply “yes” or “no” on a complicated policy question, you can’t choose the type of compromise solution that elected representatives often seek. And since governments can stage them at will, referendums tend to be deployed for the sake of political expediency, not the public good.