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Direct Democracy Strikes Again

In June, UK voters decided to take their country out of the EU, and now a narrow majority of Colombians have rejected a peace agreement with the FARC guerillas to end a half-century-long war. Why does direct democracy so often serve reactionary goals?

NEW YORK – Once again, a referendum has turned a country upside down. In June, British voters decided to take their country out of the European Union; now, a narrow majority of Colombians have rejected a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombians have taken a leap in the dark – and perhaps a leap back into the violent abyss of never-ending war.

Populists everywhere are no doubt celebrating the outcome as another clear rebuke to self-interested elites who have “rigged” their governments against the people. And the people, they say, should have a direct voice in the important decisions affecting their lives – apparently even decisions about war and peace.

But if there really is a “democracy deficit,” as populists claim, the increased use of referendums is no cure for it. On the contrary, referendums tend to make matters far worse, and can undermine democracy itself. It’s an old story: Napoleon III, for example, used such a vote to reconstitute his elected presidency into the imperial title his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, had held.

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