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Britain’s Enemy Within

Britain's decision to use a referendum to settle the question of its membership in the EU is often portrayed as a victory for democracy. The truth, however, is that bypassing elected representatives can cause deep and long-lasting polarization.

PRINCETON – Democracy everywhere is facing serious challenges. The United States is gripped by the most bizarre presidential primary campaign in living memory, with populist outsiders threatening to topple established party machines. Brazil is paralyzed by constitutional crisis. Europeans trace their malaise to a democratic deficit in the European Union. And, in the United Kingdom, the vision of recovered national sovereignty is fueling the campaign to leave the EU.

But efforts to restore the “power of the people” can easily end up turning the people against each other. The upcoming referendum on Britain’s EU membership is a case in point.

Traditional theorists of representative democracy are deeply skeptical of direct democracy. Referenda, in particular, can carry serious risks. As a complex issue is boiled down to a binary choice, that choice becomes existential – a potential source of deep long-term divisions. That is precisely what is happening in the UK today.

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