Brexit and (Direct) Democracy

I have been writing here on Continuations and in my book World After Capital that we need to be vigilant and defend democracy. Many people are taking the Brexit vote as evidence that direct democracy is a bad idea. While I am not necessarily a strong advocate for direct democracy I do think this conclusion is flawed. The UK does not have a direct democracy culture. In fact this is only the third referendum ever held in the UK!

Why does this matter? Because if you want any shot at direct democracy working, you have to practice it frequently. It requires a completely different approach to educating citizens. A great example of how little that happened here is the surge in google queries after the polls had closed asking what would happen if the UK left the EU and what the EU even is. Another indicator is the apparently non group of “Regrexit” voters who voted “Leave” not thinking it would actually win.

My interpretation is that in the UK as in the US a lot of people feel representative democracy is broken. When given a shot at a direct vote they opt for maximum change. The overall decline in voter participation I believe is an expression that many people feel it doesn’t make a difference for their lives whether Democrats/Labor or Republicans/Tories are in charge. Michael Sandel in this very worth reading interview calls this a feeling of a lack of control. People feel like not just their vote doesn’t matter but they don’t matter.

This is yet another way in which the dynamics of the Brexit vote, while different in some regards, are closely related to the success of Trump here in the US. It also happens to be one of the biggest weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a candidate. She is closely identified with the representative democracy that people feel hasn’t been working for them. 

It is also why Susan and I have been supporting as one way of trying to fix representative democracy so that the presidential election, which is effectively a national referendum in the US, doesn’t increasingly become an outlet for citizens who feel otherwise ignored.