New York Times: Letting People Vote Undermines Democracy

The New York Times published a new column warning that direct democracy in the form of voter referendums are bad, because they apparently undermine democracy.

“Though such votes are portrayed as popular governance in its purest form, studies have found that they often subvert democracy rather than serve it,” argue Amanda Taub and Max Fisher for the Times Interpreter column. They back up this counterintuitive claim by arguing that voters are essentially too ignorant to be trusted with a direct vote on major issues.

“Voters must make their decisions with relatively little information, forcing them to rely on political messaging — which puts power in the hands of political elites rather than those of voters,” Taub and Fisher contend, apparently suggesting that it is only by preventing the public from voting on an issue that they can be properly empowered. Ironically, their chief examples of “dangerous” referendums are the Brexit vote and the Colombian peace treaty referendum, both of which involved voters defying the wishes sitting political elites.

The authors also suggest that referendums can be influenced by outside political and non-political factors, such as the popularity of the ruling government, the narratives pushed by the media, and even the weather, though they don’t explain how this distinguishes referendums from regular elections.

Taub and Fisher quote several academics who echo their suggestion that giving the public too much of a voice undermines democracy, a political system that means “rule by the people.” Michael Marsh at Trinity College Dublin says countries should “almost never” hold referendums, while Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff deems them “Russian roulette for republics” because of voters’ tendency to choose the “wrong” outcome.

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