Jonathan Bernstein

I’m not your best guide to the substance or procedures of Brexit. But when people start talking democracy, my ears perk up. In particular, I’ve been annoyed for a while now at Brexit proponents who claim that the only democratic outcome is to go along with the 2016 referendum. A comment from Slate’s Joshua Keating really made me cranky:

"The voters may not choose the course of action that their leaders prefer, and it’s possible they may only create more confusion if Parliament remains deadlocked. But at this point, at least no one can say they don’t understand the consequences of what they’re voting on."

Well, no. Even if the U.K. held a second referendum, this would hardly be the case. By all accounts, British voters are unusually focused on Brexit. But I’m sure they’re also focused on their jobs, on getting their kids to school, on football or cricket or whatever goofy sports they follow, and on the rest of their lives. Brexit is extremely complicated; to say that most voters fully understand the consequences imputes expertise to them that just isn’t realistic.

And Keating actually says this not in the context of a referendum but of a general election. It’s certainly likely that an October election in the U.K. would focus on a single policy question to an unusual extent. But voters would still care about whatever they usually care about – the economy, health care, local issues – and that would factor into their choices. Even with Brexit as a question that produces cross-cutting cleavages (that is, it splits the usual party lines), party loyalty would surely still be an important factor in vote choice, and perhaps the most important.

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I say this as an outsider and non-expert on British voter behavior. But in general, and certainly in the U.S., party identification often leads to strong positions on public policy, not the other way around. That’s even true on what seem like highly personal issues such as guns or abortion. Of course, many voters have strong views on certain policies. But most of us, on most issues, are happy to follow our parties or our group or other opinion leaders. Even if sometimes we don’t realize that’s what we’re doing.

All this suggests that it’s a fallacy to think voters have strong views on most public-policy questions – and that referendums are mostly an illusion of democracy in which nonexistent majorities are created by procedural means. Direct democracy, in this sense, can actually be less democratic than representative systems. Not because voters are stupid – they aren’t! – but because representation, along with political parties, allows serious, sustained, and intense interests and preferences to be sorted out in a way that direct democracy doesn’t.

(And that’s before getting into the practical reality of direct democracy, which is that whoever gets to set the choices can heavily influence what the voters “think.” That’s a reality well known to competent pollsters, who understand that the wording of survey questions can sometimes dramatically change their results.)

Granted, representative systems have plenty of flaws, as both the U.S. and the U.K. (and Italy and Spain and keep going) demonstrate all the time. But democracy isn’t tested by comparing policy results to polls or referendums assessing public opinion. It’s found in whether institutions and procedures that can be justified as democratic – as truly representing voters – exist and function robustly.

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Bernstein writes for Bloomberg Opinion.


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