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Direct Democracy Strikes Again

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.

After the rise of fascism and during the Cold War, the world’s democracies seemed to recognize that referendums and plebiscites are the handmaidens of autocrats seeking to concentrate power. Adolf Hitler used plebiscites in the Sudetenland and Austria to consolidate the Third Reich. And, after Hitler, Joseph Stalin used referendums to incorporate Eastern Europe into the Soviet bloc.