Do we need a referendum on referendums?
Do we want those whom we elect to represent us, or channel us? To exercise their own judgment, or to be a simple conduit for the views of the majority of their electors?
It’s an old question, and the most famous answer to it, still much treasured by parliamentarians, is the one given by the Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke to his electors in Bristol, England in 1774. An opponent vying for Burke’s seat had seemed to promise the Bristol voters (not numerous, in those days) that he would vote as they told him to.
That, said Burke, was wrong. “You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.” As that member, he has to determine not just the will of the little electorate of Bristol but that of the nation. “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Edmund Burke is a hero of the political right: Margaret Thatcher, before she was leader of the Conservatives and later prime minister, quoted him when making the same point as his. But his opinion also registered across the political divide, as well as across the centuries: Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and prime minister in its postwar government, thought the same, even more vehemently than Burke or Thatcher.
Nor is this confined to the “mother of parliaments” in London. It has been the common belief of electoral systems in democracies worldwide. And it’s been generally accepted that elected politicians need to exercise their judgment, especially at critical moments — rather than rely on the shifting opinions of the electorate.
When a U.S. president, burdened with the largest cares in the world, must decide what to do about momentous affairs of state — whether the possibility of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 or the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon 50 years later — no one says: Let’s have a referendum! Ask the people what they want!
We don’t want mob rule: We want the lonely man in the Oval Office to come up with the right answer. As Europe still trembles on the verge of the collapse of its common currency, we expect a lonely woman in the German Chancellery — Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and de facto leader of the European Union — to similarly get it right. And when Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy ran out of excuses, diversions and money, the political class in that country voted for an unelected, technocratic prime minister in Mario Monti to take over, precisely so he, in his own loneliness, could take decisions.
We don’t turn these decisions over to the people in referendums, because citizens wouldn’t know what to do — or if they did, they would have hundreds of different opinions. Someone has to take the general view, in the fullest knowledge possible of the up- and downsides of every option. Someone has to carry the can.
Besides, tests of the popular will through referendums* give much practical support to Edmund Burke’s view of political life. California, the most persistent referendum taker among the U.S. states, is lumbered with the results of a referendum from 1978, Proposition 13, which placed a cap on property taxes, the main source of funding for schools — and has had a worsening, cash-strapped school system ever since. In 2009, six referendums on taxes to patch up the vast holes in the state’s budget were all voted down, which means the crisis has deepened.
(*For the wonks among us, there’s an apparent choice as to whether to say “referendums” or “referenda.” While “a” is the plural form of a Latin noun ending in “um,” referendum isn’t a noun, but a gerund. So “ums.” No calls for a referendum on this permitted.)
European leaders aren’t keen on referendums either: The voting keeps giving them the wrong answers. In the past few years, referendums in France, Ireland and the Netherlands have all rejected one or other of the major decisions taken by the European Union, a reflection of the fact that Euroskepticism, once thought the preserve of only the British, is creeping over the Continent.
For liberals, referendums are a particular challenge. There’s some substance to the view of the right that the people should decide, and when they do, they’ll be right, both morally and politically. Surveys by London’s YouGov polling organization this year showed that the British, given the chance, would vote heavily to reduce net immigration to zero; vote quite decisively to give the names of convicted pedophiles to parents in their areas; only a little less convincingly to take the UK out of the European Union; and narrowly bring back the death penalty (abolished in most of the UK in 1969) for the murder of a police officer.
All of the measures that would be voted down, meanwhile, were liberal causes — as with the banning of the death penalty for all crimes and a relaxed immigration policy. Were Britain to go the way of Switzerland and take its key decisions by popular will through referendums, it would be a much less liberal place. And it would not be alone. Especially now, in Europe, when immigration is unpopular, the British mood on immigrants would meet agreement elsewhere.
Yet the Burkean consensus is under strain. Politicians, aware of their unpopularity and a growing public demand to be involved in political decisions, are now promising to consult the people by referendum more than they have. President Nicolas Sarkozy — who earlier this week said that France had “too many immigrants” — has promised referendums, not just on immigration but on education and welfare, as he seeks to claw down his Socialist opponents’ lead in the polls before the presidential election in April. David Cameron, the British premier, has called for a referendum in Scotland to determine whether or not it will remain in the UK. Most recently, the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has called a referendum on the European Stability Treaty, which would give Ireland access to extra funding but commit it to more budgetary control from Brussels.
The UK’s foremost pollster, the former journalist Peter Kellner, who is a co-founder and president of YouGov, sees this gathering tendency as a gathering threat to democratic politics. Noting the low trust ratings for politicians in his data, he told an audience in London on Monday that “the confidence of our political classes has been shot. They no longer take the big decisions.”
Some of this is the media’s fault, or at least our fault for loving the type of media that we do. The American media writer Neal Gabler (The Triumph of the American Imagination and much else worth reading) told Bill Moyers last month that Americans love political contests, and movies about great (or crooked) presidents, but they can’t bear to watch or read about the messy, tedious, compromising business of governance — “governance,” said Gabler, “is a lousy movie. And we don’t know how to deal with that.” And because Americans love movie politicians and hate the real ones, they withdraw their support from the real politicians in government and weaken them further. With such a public mood, Burke’s refusal to “sacrifice” his judgment to his electors’ opinions sounds like arrogance, the kind of thing few politicians would dare to say.
Yet it isn’t arrogance: Burke is still right. In democratic systems, we elect politicians to, more often than not, compromise; make deals; dilute their election rhetoric and ignore their voters’ demands. In doing so — if they do so in good faith and in pursuit of a general good — they serve democracy, and thus their voters, best.
PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Brazilian President Dilma Roussoff are pictured during their opening walk at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover, March, 6, 2012. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer