The Case Against Referendums: From Greece to California, They Always End Up Undermining Democracy
In calling for a referendum on Greece’s bailout plan, Prime Minister George Papandreou has, it could be said, embraced one of his country’s oldest political traditions: direct democracy. The idea that the citizens of a state should all cast votes to decide matters of common interest was arguably born within an easy walk of his Athens office, some two and a half millennia ago.
Of course, referendums have remained a part of democratic politics into the modern era, with a formal place in the constitutions of many countries and regions, from France to Australia. In the United States, their use goes back to the town meetings of colonial New England, and they still have a crucial role in the politics of several states, notably California.
But the use of referendums as a political procedure has always been tense, even problematic, for democracies—and that is no less true of Greece’s planned vote in January. Papandreou says he is paying deference to the unmediated will of the Greek people, and so presents the vote as the very essence of democracy. Yet in fact, referendums have most often done more to weaken democratic institutions than to strengthen them, and this new example is no exception.
THE STORY BEGINS with a wholly obvious point: Modern states are far too large and complex for direct democracy. Since it would be hugely impractical for the people, as a whole, to decide on everything from the size of foreign aid budgets to new environmental regulations, they delegate the business of government to elected representatives.
We tend to forget, however, how very strange and unnatural this practice once seemed. Why should voters trust an ever-changing group of people, most of whom they themselves have not elected, most of whom they have never met, and with whom they may have nothing in common, to make decisions on matters that intimately affect their livelihood? Surely it makes much more sense (it was once thought) to entrust government to people you are bound to through ties of family, or class, or caste, or whom you believe God has chosen to rule.