Politics is becoming a fad in America. President Trump’s Twitter feed, which has become a platform for his administration’s policy recommendations, is hard to ignore. However, while we focus on America’s dysfunctional political climate, the rest of the world is facing much more severe constitutional changes and secessions. More often than not, this is happening through public referendums.
In layman’s terms, a referendum is a direct vote on a specific issue. Referendums are different from elections in that referendums reflect the views of the people on a range of individual issues instead of their preference for a specific candidate. This means that the people have the opportunity to express themselves before the issue they are voting on is passed into law. There are two types of referendums: mandatory and optional. Mandatory referendums are generally required by the country’s constitution and are usually binding, while optional referendums are initiated by political parties or the government and are not binding.
Referendums have become more politicized because politicians are simplifying the narrative of the referendums. This makes passing a referendum more about the popularity of the political party than about the subject of the referendum. In fact, Alexandra Cirone, a fellow at the London School of Economics, said, “[a referendum is] a tool that’s risky, but politicians keep using it because they think they’ll win. Often they do not win, and instead of resolving political problems, the referendums create new ones.”
Brexit exemplifies how referendums can create new problems instead of resolving old ones. David Cameron, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, decided to go forward with the referendum to ease the ‘euro-skeptics.’ He did so with the knowledge that, according to polling, only 10% of the U.K. population openly supported the U.K. Independence Party. Ultimately, David Cameron was mistaken and the majority voted in favor of Brexit.
During the debate in the United Kingdom over whether to leave the European Union, the ‘remain’ campaign emphasized economic stability. The ‘leave’ campaign highlighted the problems Britain had as a result of immigration. Neither side actually explained to the public the specifics of what it meant to stay or leave the European Union. Therefore, neither campaign gave the public the opportunity to understand what they were voting for. Both sides framed their argument based on what they thought would help them win—they politicized the campaign and let the people suffer as a result. Kenneth Rogoff, an economics professor at Harvard University, wrote “the idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily ‘democratic’ is a perversion of the term… This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.” His remarks illustrate the frustration many public policy advisors and experts feel with regards to referendums. Michael Marsh, a political scientist at Trinity College, Dublin, concurs with Rogoff’s sentiments, saying that referendums are “almost never” a good idea.
Frankly, the British people are not in a position to decide something as consequential, complicated and convoluted as Britain’s membership in the European Union. Jason Brennan, an expert on the ethics of voting at Georgetown University, spoke about what it means to have a rudimentary understanding of the ramifications of Brexit. He said, “one would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.”
Brexit is not the only potentially harmful referendum that has recently taken place. In fact, it has only been a few days since Catalonia held their referendum to leave Spain. This referendum however, was interrupted by the Spanish riot police. What was at first a festive moment for the people of Catalonia slowly descended into a display of police brutality.
Catalonia’s desire for independence stems from their painful memories of the Franco dictatorship of 1939-1975. Catalonia’s cultural identity and political liberties were suppressed, their language was belittled and their traditions were banned under Franco’s autocratic rule. Despite all this, Catalonia, which has a population of 7.5 million, maintains its own local parliament and provides about a fifth of Spain’s GDP, is still a part of Spain.
The roots of Catalonia’s desire for independence stem from its domination by the centralized Spanish government and Spain’s holistic suppression of Catalan identity. Calls for independence increased in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. Catalonia was made to bear more of the overall economic burden from the crisis than the other Spanish regions, such as Andalusia. Catalonia, a much smaller region than Andalusia, paid about 2.5 million more to the Spanish government than Andalusia did. This made the people of Catalonia extremely frustrated. The referendum that was held on October 1st called into question Catalonia’s secession from Spain. The Spanish government claimed the rogue referendum was unconstitutional but Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, has said the people of Catalonia want to become an independent republic.
Unfortunately, the people of Catalonia never got a real opportunity to vote for their independence. The Spanish government confiscated almost 10 million ballot papers, blocked access to pro-independence websites, imposed fines on Catalan officials and detained several political leaders. Moreover, on the day of the referendum, the Spanish police used rubber bullets and truncheons to hinder the voting process. The struggle between the Spanish government and Catalonia calls into question the entire process of referendums. Political parties assume their referendums will succeed, but voters are unpredictable and, more often than not, ignorant. They are likely to vote for the political party or ideology they support, even if it infringes on their rights and upends the government. Ultimately, this unpredictability portrays the dangers attached to referendums.