Let the People Decide?: The Flaws of Popular Democracy

Let the people decide. Many have begun to question whether this most fundamental concept of democracy is a wise decision in a year in which popular referendums have become increasingly common.

This past June, in a shocking referendum result, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, creating bitter divides within the country and forcing former Prime Minister David Cameron out of office. In early October, the people of Colombia narrowly rejected a peace deal that would have ended over 50 years of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), opening the door for a resumption of conflict and calling into question President Juan Manuel Santos’ political future.

The next major global referendum will be the Italian public’s vote this December on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s series of broad constitutional change proposals in the hope of solving Italy’s long-standing problems with political gridlock. Early polling suggests that, just like Cameron and Santos, Renzi’s misestimation of support from his country’s people will be his downfall.

However, it is important to note that none of these three cases required a referendum by law; all three leaders chose to hold one. While the sentiment behind these decisions is laudable, none of these referendums ever should have been held. Each referendum has left its respective country deeply divided along political, regional and socioeconomic lines, while allowing for the rise of dangerous right-wing politicians, particularly in Britain and Italy.

These leaders have every right to conduct their duties without asking for popular approval, which is implicit in the very fact that they were popularly elected. If the public disapproves of their leader’s decisions, they can simply elect a different leader. We delegate political offices to those more able to make efficient, educated and representative decisions then the everyday population is. While it is important that leaders be held accountable for their actions, it is also important to remember their qualifications and experience.

Our duty as citizens is to elect people whom we trust to make the best decisions for the country, not to presume to make those decisions ourselves. Cameron, Santos and Renzi were all fairly elected with their positions on various major issues quite well-known, and they thus had the right to chart the path of which they were known to be in support. Public opinion can be a fickle animal, and it is important that we respect our established electoral processes and let the politicians that we elect do their jobs. Too often, people expect change to happen overnight, then blame the elected officials when it doesn’t. Holding a referendum every time a major decision is to be made merely serves to stall political action and encourage leaders to avoid taking major actions so they can stay in power. There must be a balance between holding leaders accountable and allowing them to see out their plans.

While one might argue that the public simply changed their mind, it is important to not conflate the will of some people for the will of the people. A steadfast election trend is that those upset with the status quo are most likely to vote against it, while its supporters become complacent, assuming that it will not change, and thus do nothing; one does not feel compelled to act merely to keep something the same. In the Brexit vote, for example, turnout was lowest in London and Scotland, regions that were heavily in support of remaining in the EU. In Colombia, turnout was low across the board, at just under 38 percent nationwide, according to the BBC. Support for the deal was strongest in provinces like Choco that were most affected by the fighting with FARC, while the deal was rejected by those who did not bear the costs of the fighting as heavily.

This underscores another problem with popular referendums: they can be hijacked by regional interests. A leader in a functional democracy, such as President Santos, is usually able to keep the interests of all people in his country in mind. However, in a referendum, people often vote based merely on their personal experience, and suffering provinces such as Choco can be overruled by other provinces who have much less to lose by rejecting the deal.

We are spiraling toward the same outcome of political chaos in Italy, and it is critical that those who support Renzi, and supported his election in the first place, vote with the same fervor as those attempting to stick it to a government that they don’t support. Meanwhile, Renzi and other leaders should not feel as if they must get a vote of popular approval for every major action they take, as the entire point of representative democracy is that a smaller group of well-qualified people can better make educated and efficient decisions on behalf of their people.

This year has seen the rise of popular democracy in America with Donald Trump’s anti-establishment candidacy. While no major referendum on an issue has occurred in America yet, their conditions are clearly taking root. With his rhetoric that appeals to the “common man,” Trump has warped and oversimplified politics, such as the notion that free trade policies and Mexican immigrants are single-handedly responsible for the plight of the working class. In reality, Trump and many others are  not qualified to make simplistic, base judgements about a nation’s economy.

After this year of ill-conceived referendums, leaders will hopefully see the fallacy in using this destructive political tool, which only prevents politicians from doing their jobs and allows for the rise of politicians who misrepresent reality. We must put a stop to this destructive notion that the general public is qualified to decide on important and complex issues, and return to a political climate in which elected officials can do their jobs.

Cameron Hall is a College freshman from Colombus, Ohio.