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.
But there is no escape from complexity in the British campaign; it simply reemerges in the uncertainty surrounding what a vote for either camp would actually mean. Remaining in the EU could mean retaining a “semi-detached” status, and perhaps seeking more exemptions and opt-outs from common rules – the course that Prime Minister David Cameron would seem to prefer. But it could also mean trying to address on a collective basis a broad range of issues – from security to refugees to economics – that, as pro-EU campaigners point out, the UK cannot resolve on its own. This outcome, of course, would involve greater integration.