How the failure of popular politics triggered the rise of Boris JohnsonRoundup
tags: Great Britain, Brexit, Boris Johnson, public referendums
Jesse Tumblin is a visiting assistant professor who studies politics, empire and war in the department of history at Boston College.
This week, Brexit brought down its second prime minister. Theresa May, like David Cameron before her, was unable to contain the forces released by the fateful 2016 referendum. Boris Johnson will be the next to try and will now confront the forces he helped unleash.
Many have criticized the shambles Brexit has become, but few have focused on its root cause: the mechanism of referendum voting itself.
Referendums reveal the paradoxical danger within every democracy, which is that the more directly they convey the popular will, the more self-destructive they become. Referendums give expression to the popular will by allowing voters to directly decide a proposition. Once they have been offered as a political solution, it becomes nearly impossible to criticize their use or their outcome for the simple reason that opposing the consultation of the popular will is, by definition, unpopular.
Unfortunately, referendums are most often proposed as solutions to highly controversial topics that they are unable to settle and only intensify. Even worse, they invert the accountability of representative democracy by holding voters themselves responsible for the misinformation, deception and manipulation of those elected to lead them. Instead of delivering effective policy and renewed unity, referendums leave voters confused and alienated from one another and their governments. What they reveal most clearly is that the elected representatives who authorize them would prefer not to do their jobs.
These problems have been known for millennia. Citizens of classical Athens enjoyed direct democracy, with most political (and military) questions subject to open debate and relatively direct participatory votes. Momentous and potentially destructive decisions could hinge on individual persuasion; a single excellent speech could change the fate of the polis. After Athens’s spectacular collapse, it became for Aristotle (or his students) a cautionary tale of statecraft as much as an example of political genius.
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