By Curtis Houck ~
Writing on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog early Monday morning, writer Emily Badger bemoaned the June 23 vote by the United Kingdom (U.K.) to leave the European Union (E.U.) as an example of a bad referendum because it gave voters power to decide something that involved “thorny debates we elect government officials to hash out.”
Badger made clear her misgivings about the vote from the onset with the headline entitled “Brexit is a reminder that some things just shouldn’t be decided by referendum” and a lede opining that the outcome was “a messy, massive, far-reaching decision.”
After taking note of some statements by Leave campaign surrogates that might not be delivered, Badger resonated with voters who marked Leave but have since “regretted their decision” and touted an online petition by “more than three million Brits as of Sunday morning had already called for do-over” (ignoring the fact that over 17.4 million people voted to leave).
She then moved to her elitist pitch by hiding behind research from political scientists:
All of this was, perhaps, predictable, as some political scientists and historians have warned that a simple yes-or-no public referendum can be a terrible way to make a decision with such complex repercussions. The process looks like direct democracy in its purest form, and it was celebrated as such by many Leave campaigners after the vote. But David A. Bell, a Princeton historian writing in The New Republic four years ago as Greece was preparing for a referendum on its bailout, argues that the result of referendums is much more often anti-democratic.
Further paraphrasing Bell, Badger claimed that supposedly “appropriate” referendums involve solely “fundamental questions of sovereignty (should Quebec become independent, or Scotland break away from Great Britain?).”
Of course, she chose not to place Brexit in this category but rather the second one that was dubbed “a means of checking the seamy practices that too often infect modern representative systems.”
Decisions such as Brexit, gay marriage, and tax policy shouldn’t be decided by the people because, as she snidely explained:
[T]hey take relatively technical issues away from legislators who have the time and expertise to deal with them, and give them to voters who do not. Referendums also tend to make legislating in the future much harder, by casting policies as constitutional changes that are hard to dislodge.
To her credit, Badger didn’t run away but instead took time to actually to mention a few examples and how they get in the way of legislators (and other elites) from maintaining their utopian world ruled by experts:
In a world where all kinds of decisions that should be made by legislators are made by referendums instead, we get, well, California — a state where ballot initiatives rule what happens to individual bonds and bag taxes and even proposed buildings. Back in 1978, California voters generously decided in a ballot measure to cap their own property taxes in a way — amending the state constitution — that has hobbled ever since California’s ability to generate revenue and create reasonable housing policy.
Last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding gay marriage also underscored another drawback of referendums: Give people a chance at the ballot box, and they may also trample minority rights.
She concluded that while “Brexit supporters certainly cast the question as one of fundamental sovereignty and “independence” from Europe,” the vote “also raised the kinds of thorny debates we elect government officials to hash out” that normal voters (somehow) shouldn’t be allowed to grapple with.”
In the end, many would agree that pure democracy would be far too chaotic and rocky, but the idea that voters shouldn’t be allowed to have their say on anything complex or significant is not the attitude to take either and arguably why so many voted to Leave in the first place.
Curtis Houck is a news analyst for the Media Research Center’s News Analysis Division.