“Take back control” has been an intoxicating rallying call to voters not just in Britain, but in the United States, and many other parts of the world. People are “making themselves heard” in elections and referendums. Their votes are signalling that they no longer trust or feel linked to establishment politicians and institutions. For politicians the quick fixes of direct democracy and nativism are proving difficult to resist. But these will erode democracy. The necessary alternative is to renovate democratic politics, and fast.
On 23 January 2013 when British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum on the UK membership of the European Union, he declared that “it is time for the British people to have their say.” Likewise, across the world, leaders having to make difficult decisions, are referring issues to the public. In Colombia, it was the peace deal which took four years to negotiate; in Hungary, controversial immigration policy; in Italy, constitutional reform; in Australia, gay rights. In the United States “ballot propositions” are continually put to the electorate. As one voter in California remarked, “along with my vote for President, I had to answer 41 ballots”.
When elected politicians hold referendums to give people a say, it is surely a sign that the foundations of democracy are weak. In Britain, as in many democracies, people “have their say” in many ways. They form associations or join political parties or unions, they lobby, they write to newspapers, they take part in television discussions, they write to the Prime Minister, they vote in local, regional, and national elections. They badger their local member of Parliament, church or school. If these no longer work, the solution is not to offer citizens the chance to answer a one-off question.
The votes in a referendum are seldom a reliable answer to voters’ preferences about the one-off question. When New Zealand offered its citizens the chance to vote for which of two flags they preferred, many voted for or against the design as a way of voting either for or against the Prime Minister (who had made his own preference clear), or for or against the process by which the selection was made.
But referendums have more pernicious effects. They tempt politicians to replace their duty to make decisions carefully with a crude majoritarianism. Democracies have long since derived ways to avoid majoritarianism. Representative democracy requires politicians to balance competing interests, and to take into account minorities. In Colombia, a tiny majority of just half a percentage of voters was opposed to the peace agreement. “The 6 million of us who voted yes also should be heard,” said Freddy León, a 25-year-old engineer, who marched after the outcome holding a candle in his fist. “This is a way for us to show the impotence we feel.”
Worst of all, referendums permit politicians to avoid responsibility. When the (not former) British Prime Minister launched the 2016 referendum, he declared that “it is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe”. But who is the “us” who should settle such a question? The word referendum means to refer something. And politicians – as we are seeing all over the world – love to refer things, particularly to avoid consequences detrimental to their own career or party. When Britain’s first referendum (on the EEC) was held in 1975, Margaret Thatcher made a staunch argument against it. Without the protections and definition afforded by a written constitution, she argued, a referendum sacrificed parliamentary sovereignty to political expediency. Referendums might seem “democratically” to give people a voice, but in practice they permit a difficult decision to be made without anyone being held to account.
Direct democracy is not a good solution to failures of representative politics. Representative democracy recognises that good decisions are not the result of simply aggregating individual preferences. Someone has to take responsibility for bringing together the interests, information, and institutions required to decide. If politicians do the job badly, voters can throw them out of office.
Direct democracy is not the only corrosive force at work in democracies. The other is nativism. Blaming foreigners – at home and abroad – for the things people most fear: the loss of their job, their house, their security. It is astonishing how quickly nativism has crept into mainstream debate and media. This year saw a Presidential candidate in France arguing to lock up (without judicial authorisation) Muslims suspected of radical tendencies, an American Presidential candidate (now elect) implying that the foreign origins of an American judge gave reason to question his judgment, and a British Minister proposing publicly that British firms might be required to publish lists of the foreigners working for them.
When politicians stoke fear and resentment between groups in their society, the result can be a vicious circle of conflict and violence. People become more scared to go to the same school or to live in the same area. Yet it is precisely that social mixing which reduces fear and makes social cohesion possible. When the lives of different groups are separate, their fears grow even more. In societies as diverse as Britain, America, and France, this is dangerous stuff.
Adding to the risks of nativist rhetoric by politicians, social media and online interactions are reinforcing separation in societies, creating echo-chambers in which like-people endorse each others’ views.
Democracy requires a citizenship that meets, deliberates and interacts without fear and hatred. It requires organisations which give people a “voice” and a feeling that they have a stake and some influence in the system, just as early steps in political enfranchisement and political organisations helped the United States and the United Kingdom to preserve democracy in the 1930s. Democracy also needs public spaces, places, and debates in which people interact and discover commonalities and differences they would otherwise ignore. Renovating democracy can take place by innovating how communities engage with political issues and decisions. We do not live in a world where “post-truth politics” is inevitable. My academic colleagues have demonstrated the positive effects of getting citizens to engage and deliberate on substantive issues and how this shifts voting away from personality politics– from West Africa to the Philippines.
Equally importantly, democracy needs online innovation. Technologists, media companies and entrepreneurs need to rethink the online spaces and social media they’ve created and start reshaping them to help diverse societies cohere. When Microsoft created Windows it created the possibility of multiple lenses or views of an issue: why not build on that? Renovating democracy needs to permit people genuinely to take back control as a diverse community, and to participate in a society and political system which holds together rather than cracking apart.
This article first appeared in the New Statesman, 9 December 2016 (print edition) and online on 16 December 2016.
Ngaire Woods is Professor of Global Economic Governance and Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford.
The Blavatnik School’s annual Challenges of Government Conference will take place on 19-20 June 2017, and will focus on ‘Bridging the Gap’: how we can renovate politics, public service, and economies so as to build more coherent and trusting societies. Sign up to the events mailing list for updates.