Two Mistakes

…are made in a recent The Diplomat piece about the British referendum to leave the EU and our own Founders’ view of popular (direct) democracy.

One is the conflation of a single referendum with direct democracy.

[I]he whole spectacle of a referendum—a “device of dictators and demagogues,” in the words of Margaret Thatcher—underlined a salient point: our soundbite culture, combined with political populism, renders direct democracy in the form of a referendum entirely unsuitable as a tool for deciding complex policy issues.

Or any other culture, apparently.  Notice that, though: a referendum.  Not routine referenda for making all national decisions, which would be popular democracy governance.  No, this was a single referendum to make a single decision; it was no pattern, it set no precedent, and it was entirely appropriate.

This referendum was entirely appropriate because the representative democracy government was itself divided on the matter.

The referendum was especially appropriate for a much larger reason, though.  It’s entirely appropriate, necessary even, for the a representative government to go back to the people as a whole on occasion to get their instruction because that’s how the representatives as a whole (re)calibrate their ties to the people they claim to represent.

The other mistake is claiming that the people are just too stupid to make their own decisions; they need to listen to their Betters and otherwise be quiet.

The voices of reason were further drowned out….


T[he Brexit referendum illustrates as much the failure of the experts and elected politicians as it shows that relying on the masses and populism can lead to suspect and potentially damaging decisions. In that sense, we have to guard ourselves against direct democracy being hijacked by demagogues and populists lest we have to endure the “tyranny of the majority” at the expense of wiser policies.

This would be true of a direct democracy; however, see above: a single referendum does not make for a direct democracy means of governance.  The Diplomat‘s piece illustrates, on the contrary, the need for the occasional national referendum.  Experts are in a tizzy because the masses rejected their wisdom and made that damaging decision—at least in the minds of those Betters.  What a representative democracy must especially guard against, though, is being hijacked by demagogues and elitists lest we have to endure the tyranny of the Betters at the expense of the people.

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