This is the thorny question that Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Italy, Jill Morris, was asked referring to the Brexit, during a Global Conversation held at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. Her answer was firm and convinced: ͞The British People has expressed its will which is the most beautiful and admiring characteristic of democracy. Now we are going to respect it. It didn’t sound like the outcome we imagined, but this is how the game works and we lost. Let͛s go for the best loss. At the same time, this answer tells those people arguing that referenda are not the best tool to face such sensitive issues to give up. It͛s useless guys, you will always be blamed to be antidemocratic: democracy is the best form of government only in case you win. Don’t you dear go against the People sovereignty.

Well, no Ambassador. I don’t see your point.

The wrong assumption is to consider democracy equal to the victory of the majority: how could the 52% of the British People magically become the entire British People? I am not arguing that our democratic systems are happy islands where neither winners nor losers exist: elections͛outcomes are the way in which we identify them. However, this method does not exclude losers from the decision making of the following 5 years: a minority and a majority sit together in Parliaments, influencing (threatening) each other and working together in the name of the whole Nation. In a properly working representative democracy then, the same situation holds true outside Parliaments, among citizens: they all join the public sphere, they exchange different opinions and they contribute to influence the mandate of their representatives. Moreover, elections are held periodically, so that their outcome does not decide who wins and who loses for good. Indeed, the situation can change completely not only after five years, but also before the end of the parliamentary term, in case of government crisis. Referenda, instead, do exactly what we have tried to avoid with Constitutions: they set arbitrary and definite decisions which are going to be applied also to people who did not vote for them and have no right or tool to oppose them. Instead of being a tool for participation, referenda become a tool for polarization.

So, what’s the reason for referenda and why are they so glorified everywhere?

Referenda are the main tool of direct democracy. So far, the only working experience of it occurred in a small Greek polis particularly lucky and provided with the greatest philosophers, poets, but especially with incredible political men. In Athens, every day was a referendum day, because citizens gathered in the Assembly where they were called to vote directly on a daily issue. However, the voting process was the very result of a long debate, in which basically everybody had the possibility to get informed and to challenge his own point of view. People with citizenship rights were around 300.000 and wealth was the main (and maybe the only) discriminant among them. People were the law themselves; no Constitution was needed. Decisions were taken most of the time with large majority consensus because discussion allowed quasi-equal citizens sharing a common national interest to reach a compromise.

Since the 30s of the previous century, almost every Western representative democracy considered referenda as a great way to recover the already existent gap between the political elite and the detached people. Overall, referenda were meant to make representative democracy more direct, allowing citizens to take part in the decision-making process. Could this theoretical framework work so easily? Of course it couldn’t, and we already examined the controversies that make it inefficient. The main reasons for its inefficiency are essentially two. On the one hand, the practical impossibility to debate the issue at stake all together, as Athenian people used to do, reduced referenda to the single voting process. The debating part has been replaced by controversial parties͛ campaigns which only result in gut feeling votes. I don’t need to explain the damages that these votes can produce, but it is important to bear in mind that they are even greater in case of referenda because of the impossibility to get back after that. On the other hand, even if every single voter reached a good degree of information on the issue at stake, today the discriminant among citizens is much wider than simply wealth as in the Athenian direct democracy. In other words, problems such as tyranny of the majority and polarization of the society would still persist. That͛s why currently, there is no other possible democracy than the representative one.

Are referenda always wrong?

At the same time, we should not think of referenda as the evil of our democracies. Indeed, I am not denying the important role they play when moral and social issues are at stake. Italy conquered the Republic, divorce and abortion rights throughout referenda, and many other countries did as well. Therefore, a distinction should be done between referenda concerning fundamental issues linked to sovereignty and to the future a society imagines for itself, and referenda concerning issues that are normally managed by the representatives because they entail too complex and hidden consequences. Coming back to Brexit referendum, you could place it in both categories, but it is sure that if Britain really left EU, the consequences would go much further than a simple sovereignty issue.

In other words, what’s wrong with referenda is the idea that they can solve problems they are not meant to solve. It is not a matter of recovering the gap between the People and their representatives by giving the former a nuanced impression of transparency of the decision-making process. Rather, it’s time to do it by making transparency and information the leading pillars of our democratic systems. On this purpose, it͛s time to see the great opportunity that the internet and the new technologies give us. Or we could simply do nothing and continue blaming either the ignorant mob or the deaf elite.

It’s up to us.


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