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The Fall of the Republic: Why referenda always go bad

The declaration that “tyranny naturally arises out of democracy” is the famous, anti-democratic thesis of Plato’s Republic. While the Ancient Greek philosopher’s criticisms of direct democracy have led to the widespread denunciation of such systems of government, the specter of absolute democracy continues to gnaw at political institutions worldwide, remerging as a referendum. Indeed, referenda have been used to produce several controversial decisions this year: It was the mechanism by which Britain voted to leave the European Union, Colombia voted against a peace agreement with The Revolutionary Armed Force (FARC), and Hungary cast an invalidated vote to limit the flow of refugees. Although the outcomes of each referendum may be controversial in and of themselves, the initial decision to utilize a direct vote to make such major political decisions is one worth criticism. The reckless use of referenda demonstrates the structural weaknesses of direct democracy, reaffirming it as a system far more dangerous than forms of representative government. Just as Plato believed, direct democracies often lead to poorly reasoned political decisions, encourage the proliferation of sensationalist rhetoric in the presence of misinformation, and eliminate political checks and balances for minority groups.

The issues referenda create are not dissimilar to those that direct democracies have suffered from since Plato initially condemned them. As Professor of Political Philosophy Jason Brennan argues, it is a shocking display of optimism to expect the public to fully account for the long-term consequences of major political decisions. Voters have neither time nor expertise to weigh the costs and benefits of issues in the way that professional policymakers can. This naturally contributes to often capricious voting patterns and short-term thinking. Moreover, political scientists have found that everything from weather on Election Day to recent performances of local sports teams can powerfully affect election outcomes.

Beyond this, voters also often hold views that are contradictory in nature. For instance, they support governmental debt reduction but reject the spending cuts needed to do so; they support military expansion and strong national defense but reject military intervention. Brennan argues that this widespread evidence of voter confusion justifies the establishment of an epistocracy – or rule by experts – in the place of an absolute democracy. While Brennen’s conclusion is certainly controversial, the evidence of how voters actually approach elections demonstrates the peril of placing nuanced policy issues on the ballot.

Moreover, just as Plato condemned Athenians for utilizing rhetorical and emotional appeals to sway democratic voters, referenda also tend to be swayed by similar techniques that often have little grounding in actual fact or policy. There is clear evidence of this in the referenda held in the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Colombia. Emotional rhetoric demonstrably altered the ways that people voted when complicated economic, sociological, political, philosophical, and historical arguments wouldn’t. For instance, prior to the Brexit vote, the Leave campaign sought to capitalize on a blend of xenophobia and fear of terrorism by linking an exit from the European Union to the effort to limit immigration and refugees. Misinformation and hyperbole abounded as the Leave campaign warned of the UK reaching its “Breaking Point.”

Yet even if the failures of referenda are simply the necessary cost of public engagement in the political system, referenda generally fail to capture the will of the public as a whole. The stated goal of referenda is often taken to be the attempt to give the people a say and to ensure that out-of-touch politicians can’t trample over the people they govern. However, that goal becomes confounded when only a small number of people actually show up to the polls. This was true in Colombia, where the peace agreement between the government and FARC guerillas failed by a margin of 0.4 percent, with only a 37.4 percent turnout rate. It was also true in Hungary, where about only about 44 percent of voters showed up to vote on a migrant quota referendum that was also boycotted by several major parties. Even in the UK’s groundbreaking decision to leave the European Union, approximately 72 percent of voters showed up to the polls.

Low voter turnout is a crippling defect for modern referenda, not only because it undermines the stated goal of gauging the voice of the people, but also because the number of votes that distinguish one outcome from another is often quite small ­– a direct contrast to its potentially momentous consequences. Indeed, with such a poor turnout rate, it seems likely that if just a small number of additional voters had heard a particular speech, seen a particular political ad, or hadn’t been deterred from voting by bad weather, the results of any of these referenda might be very different. Advocates of referenda consequently make the mistake of supposing that the results of a public vote with close margins and poor participation are representative of the will of the people as opposed to an infinite array of random factors that swayed the results, producing a temporary majoritarian consensus.

Beyond this, low turnout in a referenda is almost always present among low-income individuals and minorities. These voters face the largest structural barriers to voting, either due to discriminatory policies, a lack of access to transportation, or the high costs of missing work to go to the polls, yet they will often be some of the most affected by these decisions. Moreover, referenda often require a higher level of political engagement, which is particularly uncommon in low-income communities that lack access to education. For example, California’s 2016 ballot featured 17 referenda on such major issues as the death penalty and prescription drug prices. It’s simply unreasonable to expect a single mother balancing two jobs to learn enough about these issues to make an informed decision. Moreover, in the likely event that she simply chooses not to vote at all, the entire stated political purpose of a referendum is undermined.

Referenda also work to systematically exclude those who cannot vote. For instance, some referenda affect constituencies that are not represented in the public vote because they are not granted the right to vote. While disenfranchised criminals are the most obvious example, the issue is actually far more widespread. Consider, for instance, that Brexit failed to account for the large number of non-British EU workers who could lose their jobs as soon as Article 50 is invoked.

In legislative political processes, non-voting and minority constituencies have greater opportunity to make their voices heard through interest groups and smaller, representative districts. As a result, decision-makers have the ability, the electoral incentive, and the mandate to consider the implications of their decisions more than voters ever will. Whether or not legislators are successful at supporting minority perspectives is another question entirely. However, good legislatures can prevent a tyranny of the majority from making arbitrary, momentous decisions that ignore the voices of minority demographics.

In the Republic, Plato rightfully pointed out that society works best when there is a governing body that is solely tasked with the responsibility of ruling and enacting policy. While there ought to be checks on such powers, political decisions should be made by politicians and experts. Governments ought to abandon the notion that they can expect the public alone to produce the best possible political outcome or that such a situation is even desirable. Doing so may help to avoid a scenario where they are forced to enact referenda-induced policy changes, knowing that they are not in the best interest of the country – something that Theresa May, tasked with leading Britain’s exit from the EU, is currently grappling with.

It is an injustice to both a country’s domestic population as well as the international community for politicians to abdicate political responsibility in the ways that they have in Columbia, Hungary, and the UK. Governmental officials are useful because they are meant to take ownership of the world’s most complex political decisions and be held accountable for their repercussions. The redirection of this responsibility to the public can have pernicious effects on the integrity of a governing body by providing a pipeline for populism to suppurate into the political mainstream and control public policy. The use of public referenda disfigures the just organization of the state and often results in the marginalization of minority groups, the proliferation of misinformation, and the partition of society into a domineering majority that can crush the minority with a simple vote.

This is just as Plato expected.

About the Author

Julian Jacobs '19 is a Senior Staff Writer and Interviews Associate at BPR concentrating in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He is a former Opinion's Columnist for The Brown Daily Herald and the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Brown University Journal of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (JPPE).