Back in 2014, a group of high profile Catalans, including FC Barcelona star Pep Guardiola and famed tenor José Carreras, penned an article making the case for the simple freedom to vote on whether Catalonia should be independent. They laid out the argument for holding an independence referendum and concluded by asking, “Who can be afraid of democracy?”
Democracy is nothing to be afraid of, but we should all be apprehensive about referenda.
Referenda are on the rise. In 2017 alone, over 15 countries will have held referenda on more than fifty issues. Last year, 25 countries held referenda on over 200 issues. From Brexit to Catalan to Iraqi Kurdish independence, coverage of these direct democracy votes fill the 24-hour news cycle and commentary floods our Twitter feeds.
The referendum wave comes at a time when populist leaders and parties are also on the rise. One in five Europeans (a total of 55.8 million people) voted for a populist party in 2016 or 2017, according to a summer study by the European Policy Information Center. And last month, Germany added to those totals when AfD went from zero to 94 seats in the Bundestag.
Although the causal connections are complex, the simultaneity of these two developments is no accident. Both movements purport to take power out of the hands of politicians and technocrats and put it directly in the hands of “the people.” Both tap into frustrations about globalization, job displacement due to trade, economic stagnation, income inequality, corruption, migration, and perceived resentments against perceived elitism and political disenfranchisement.
"Referenda often become a vehicle for a passionate minority to impose their will on the whole country"
Both are actively backed by the Russians, who view them as forces to undermine the stability and credibility of liberal democracy, particularly in the trans-Atlantic area. It is extremely telling that populism and referenda share not only wellsprings of frustration, but also secret funders and online helpmates. The spike in referenda mixed with the uptick in populism is a recipe for turmoil and instability.
Referenda are billed as giving a population the chance to have a voice and be heard, but often they become a vehicle for a passionate minority to impose their will on the whole country.
In this 2017 referendum on Catalan independence, the yes campaign used the simplest of slogans: “we want to vote.” Who could be against that? But wanting a voice and caring about the issue on the ballot are two different things.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that from Germany to France to Spain to Italy, majorities support holding a referendum on EU membership. But this does not mean people want to leave the European Union. For example, while 61 percent of French respondents want the chance to vote, only 22 percent would actually vote to leave. In theory, citizens want a say in their future. But that does not equate to a passion for or interest in the issue on the table.
Rather than “letting the people decide,” referenda are typically a recipe for “letting a minority rule.” In Catalonia, only 43 percent came out to vote. In Colombia’s referendum on the FARC peace deal last year, just 37 percent cast a ballot. This makes it difficult to say the people have spoken.
Referenda create a distorted binary choice that voters are ill-equipped to decide. They take incredibly complicated issues and put them in the hands of people without the knowledge or capacity to make informed decisions. Not only are the policy issues at stake complex, the wording of the question on the ballot is often technical. Therefore, campaigns often hijack the issues at hand and reframe the intricate policy decisions into binary, emotion-laden choices.
Campaigns play on these emotions – both fears and aspirations – but often fail to responsibly debate the practicalities of the result. Only after the Brexit vote did people start having a real discussion about the hard practical truths of leaving the EU. In the days after the Catalan referendum, there was equal confusion about what happens next and what an independent Catalonia looks like in terms of EU membership, trade, and families who would be separated.
"Should human and civil rights issues ever be put to a popular vote?"
For decades, California has offered the world a warning on the perils of direct democracy. With 17 ballot measures last year alone, $473 million was spent on these direct democratic campaigns that have become a blessing for special interests and extremists pursuing laws with murky ramifications. These ballot measures also devalue representative democracy by sidestepping lawmakers who were elected to deliberate over complex issues in favor of decisions via mass gut impulses.
Proponents say direct democracy engages citizens. They say referenda can bring attention to issues that are in gridlock. Some could argue that without a referendum, the hard discussions in the UK or Colombia and now Catalonia would never have happened – the vote forced difficult issues to a head and brought opposing factions to the table. Some also point to the 2016 vote on same sex marriage in Ireland as evidence that referenda can progress human rights issues with a popular stamp of approval. It was the first time a country adopted marriage equality by national referendum - it was an inspiring and important milestone in the world’s changing attitudes on the issue.
But the very next year the voters in another island country, The Bahamas, decided against enshrining gender equality into their constitution.
This begs the question: should human and civil rights issues ever be put to a popular vote? Majorities can give rights, but then they can also take rights away with direct democracy. That should give some pause to “the people” and make us all afraid.
This article was originally published in Europe's World Online.
Kristi Lowe is a Partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a global polling, strategic communications and campaign management consultancy