By the time you read this, Britain should have left the European Union. Or, perhaps, it’s still a member. Maybe there will be another referendum. This uncertainty reveals how divided Britons are about their future and place in Europe. It also tells us a lot about direct democracy, a form of governance Americans have always found appealing.
Direct democracy occurs when residents of a jurisdiction — a city, state, country — vote on policy rather than have elected representatives make these decisions for them. Thomas Jefferson believed such a “pure” democracy was best for the United States because it nurtured public virtue and would most efficiently project yeoman values into American life. James Madison warned majorities would exploit it to suppress dissenters and, as the driving force behind the Constitution and its ratification, his argument won the day.
So, we do not have direct democracy at the federal level, but states, counties, and cities do. It has always been a fixture of New England politics; residents still meet regularly to discuss their towns’ business and approve matters like budgets. During the Progressive Era that straddled the turn of the 20th century, many other states established procedures to permit the public to vote on changes to law and their constitution, some even allowed residents to place these proposals on the ballot rather than have legislators do it for them. North Carolina has a relatively limited form of direct democracy in that the public can only vote on changes to the constitution proposed by the legislature. We have done it quite a lot recently, however. You might recall the General Assembly presented us with six amendments in the election this past November.
Americans want direct democracy. Polls routinely show we deeply distrust elected officials. We also have greater confidence in state and local government than Washington and believe policymakers should faithfully reflect the will of majorities. Brexit, however, should give us pause.
Brexit is a kind of parable about direct democracy, because in June 2016 the British people voted to leave the EU in a referendum. Britain doesn’t have much direct democracy; there are only two modern precedents for the 2016 vote, a referendum on continued EU membership in 1975 and one on changing the electoral system in 2011.After its 2015 reelection, the governing Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron believed only the public could be charged with making such a momentous decision.
Cue the current mess. The proposal the British people approved was a simple one asking if the country should leave or remain in the EU and made no mention of an exit process. No one really debated the terms of Britain’s departure during the campaign. The result was very close, with 52 percent in favor of quitting.
This is the central problem with direct democracy. The public — by which we really mean majorities — sometimes has strong views on important matters, but these tend to be simplistic and incoherent. There is little understanding of how they might hang together in a program of policies. There is no grasp of what these policies will produce once applied to real-world conditions.
In complete contrast to the wording of the referendum, the Brexit process has generated a dizzying array of complicated decisions the government and parliament must make. The process of trying to leave the EU has had many unforeseen “knock-on” effects, regarding everything from the Irish border to the future of Britain’s trade policy. There is no mandate for any particular option.
Direct democracy can work if the public is asked to approve a negative action or stop something from happening. In May 2012, North Carolinians voted to prohibit same-sex marriage. The government’s responsibilities were then clear. Sometimes, a direction to act positively can also present a simple task to policymakers. The referendum to add a voter identification requirement to our state constitution implied specific instructions because the U.S. Supreme Court had greatly restricted the scope of constitutionally permissible action. The Republican General Assembly had also telegraphed intentions about what it would do if granted the authority. That in both cases courts intervened to reverse the public is a topic I’ll grumble about another day.
More often, though, a referendum only obfuscates. Brexit is as complex as most of the conceivable policy matters Americans could consider under direct democracy at the federal level. Imagine asking them directly about Social Security reform, trade policy with China, an income tax overhaul, or climate change. As the Brexit chaos demonstrates, executives and legislative majorities should formulate and implement complex policies on issues like these. The public’s role should be to give them the power to do so after an election campaign in which candidates thoroughly and straightforwardly debate core principles and the broad outlines of the course of action they intend to pursue.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.