Weighing the Wrath of the Referendums

Dec 20, 2018 | 10:00 GMT

Yellow vest protesters gather at the Place de l'Opera in Paris on Dec. 15, 2018.

Yellow vest protesters gather at the Place de l'Opera in Paris on Dec. 15. The French acronym "RIC" on some of the signs seen in this photograph stands for Citizens' Initiative Referendum -- a demand that the government hold referendums to allow voters to screen policy proposals.

(JEFF J MITCHELL/Getty Images)


  • Referendums are a compelling tool to engage the public when it has lost faith in the ability of political institutions to uphold a social contract. It is little wonder, then, that referendums have seen a resurgence alongside the rise of populism in parts of the world.
  • Referendums come with considerable risk: Power-hungry leaders can use them to consolidate their authority while well-intentioned democratic leaders can see their moves spectacularly backfire when nuance is lost in popular debate.
  • Even as the chaos of Brexit is seen as a cautionary tale, a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice may have the effect of encouraging more referendums by EU states looking to bargain on matters of national sovereignty.
  • Mexico's new president will rely heavily on referendums to pursue an aggressive populist agenda at the cost of souring the country's investment climate.
  • America's Founding Fathers insulated the country from the volatility that comes with national plebiscites, but shutting off such populist valves could have bigger unintended consequences for the republic.

When, where, under whose authority and under what circumstances is it politically sanitary to allow ordinary citizens to vote directly on massively impactful policies? While many Brexit-brooding Brits today could use a definitive answer to this question, the truth is, nobody really knows. This is a debate that has been going on for roughly 2,500 years, from the ancient Greek ecclesia to republican Rome to the rise of modern representative democracies on both sides of the Atlantic, many of which now find themselves in intense political turmoil. For all the academic literature on the topic, there is no equation to find the "right" balance of direct versus representative democracy, only a checkered list of historical and contemporary examples that can be either romanticized or vilified depending on the agenda and personality of the day....

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