What Brexit and California Reveal About Direct Democracy

Democracy means different things to different people, so it’s important to distinguish between representative and direct democracy. The former has been the basis of the two longest lasting existing systems of government on Earth, those of the US and the UK. Direct democracy has been increasingly seen as a solution to the corruption of elected officials in a representative democracy. But what does history show about the results it produces?

Here in California, we have three distinct forms of direct democracy all applicable at the state and local levels: referendum, where the people may agree to or reject a government proposal; initiative, where the people themselves may propose laws and constitutional amendments; and, recall, where the people may remove elected officials prior to the end of their term.

The record is bad. Perhaps the most justifiable of the three, recall, was used to remove a governor who happened to be in office when—you guessed it—a law enabled by initiative started to blow up. Worse, the infamous Prop 13 has strangled local government to the point where they are basically forced to make bad decisions to being in revenue. Terrible laws aimed at immigrants and gays have also been passed by initiative.

Why is this? In the Brexit context people cited numerous reasons for voting “out.” But much of the sour grapes were focused on it being a “protest” vote having nothing to do with the seemingly straightforward question of in or out. Unfortunately, Brexit was a very complex question and the fact that it was made so simply contributed to the confusion because the question of what “out” meant was left open.

And this is, in my view, the best critique of direct democracy as its implemented. We ask what amounts to an opinion question and leave the details out or don’t specifically ask people’s opinion about them. A politician concerned for his reelection would balk at voting for something even wildly popular among his constituents if the resulting implementation and consequences were disastrous. You’d think.

But the broader public failing to be able to distinguish between alternatives that don’t occur and necessary and sufficient causes has contributed to the mix of the demand for politicians to simply implement the popular opinion of the moment and ignore the consequences. This is what the Tea Party was about, perhaps best exemplified in the government shutdowns or the disaster of Brownback’s Kansas.

There is a tendency—a quite natural one, I think—to feel that direct democracy is the solution to an unresponsive elite. But it falls along the lines of thinking that shrinking government will increase freedom—only to find that corporations fill the void. In direct democracy, those that can out-organize, usually thanks to money, have an advantage that has nothing to do with the merit of their ideas and indeed usually trades on emotions like fear.

Recall is probably the most justified form of direct democracy in a representative democracy because it relates to the ability to pick our representatives, not do their jobs, though the chilling effect it has may produce the same result. But the other forms are simply producing bad results and need to be reduced.