Whither Brexit

Answer… it’s ongoing.

Hard to believe two years have passed since the first big shock result of 2016. Especially since little seems to have happened, in this case.

The main reason I feel like revisiting this topic is its useful lessons for national plebiscites, a concept which has been on my mind lately.

It’s increasingly tempting to believe that America’s national politics might benefit from some element of direct democracy. The reasons are mostly variations on the theme of current practices not working very well…

Comparing surveys on issues, and the outcome of votes for elected officials, it seems like there is definitely a disparity, and seems to me like people are less bad at choosing broad policies than they are at choosing leaders to empower. Both my own observations and some studies suggest that contests for elected office have devolved into mindless seesaws of partisan intensity, whereas facts and argument have at least some chance in initiative and referendum campaigns. On certain issues, meanwhile, ideas seem to have hardened and yet there is no apparent hope of settling e.g. the issue of abortion, because on this issue there is no real overlap between the two parties between which government is, over time, divided in America.

I believe that there are issues in which resort to a nationwide plebiscite would offer some hope of an America that is less ungovernable.

Mainly because, at this point, national politics are basically a kind of bastardized pseudo-direct-democracy anyway. In practice, we elect people to make decisions… in reality, ideological party “sorting” is now substantial, and elections are at least as much arguments about known issues as they are about trying to select wise and honorable people to deal with undefined “new business.” At some point, it seems like we need either a better mechanism for resolving long-term disputes… or else we need to admit that we’re in a civil war and respond accordingly.

Plebiscites seem like a possible solution. Yet even setting aside the inevitable constitutional roadblock, just for discussion’s sake, there are reasons for concern. I think the story of Brexit demonstrates some interesting ones besides the obvious.

With Brexit, David Cameron’s government held a simple-question referendum on matters which defy equally simple execution. “Leave the EU” is in some sense relatively straightforward to implement; one just abrogates all existing relationships with the European Union and hey presto, this is what gets called “hard Brexit.”

This is also, even to plenty of people who are sympathetic to Brexit, insane.

Something should replace European Union membership. That seems to be generally accepted as just basic reason. Unfortunately, there is no equally basic definition for what “something” should be, and thus have followed two years of stalling, dithering, and hoping that something comes along to resolve the dilemma. (I’m reminded a bit of Republicans’ futile efforts to find a palatable, conservative alternative to Obama’s healthcare reforms which already were the most palatable, conservative approach that can actually be made to work.)

Obviously, holding the referendum before resolving this question was stupid. Even worse, once done, there are no good options. You’ve held a nationwide referendum, and, crucially, generally speaking all the major factions accepted its terms. The time to protest the referendum’s vagueness was before the campaign got started. The powerful Remain coalition nonetheless proceeded to accept it as a valid and real decision-point, probably in large part because they expected to win.

Then they didn’t. Despite which, all of the people at the top of all Britain’s major political parties are still fundamentally at odds with any practical Brexit scenario. Also an obvious risk of plebiscites, though I think that it’s probably exacerbated by the fact that, again, there is no consensus sane course of action for them to “just get on with.”

I think that “do-over” and “just forget about it” are both problematic in their own way, also. Ultimately because, again, you held a referendum, society accepted it in the sense of taking part rather than boycotting it, people voted, and any course which clearly dishonors their decision is fundamentally illegitimate. I’m familiar with all the rejoinders, and they don’t persuade me; Britain held a “consultative referendum” and the people consulted said “leave the EU.” If the national leaders who treated this referendum as a decision of genuine consequence—which in this context is, again, basically all of the national leaders both in power and in-waiting—then do something other than leaving the EU, why should people continue to regard any of them or the system of governance which they direct as legitimate?

Even within a complete make-believe context, it’s difficult for me to come up with any fair resolution to the fiasco which David Cameron set in motion. I could just about see the best possible compromise as represented by some kind of ranked-choice vote on, say, “Hard Brexit,” no Brexit, and an actual negotiated settlement with the EU. The problem is that someone has to negotiate the third option with the EU, and it’s unclear who could claim to be acting in credible good faith there. The EU does not want to give Britain a good Brexit deal, although to some extent that was a foreseeable issue inherent within separating from the EU. But Theresa May’s government seems, especially after dithering with the issue for so long, like it could very intentionally work with the EU to create a bad deal, so as to make “no Brexit” seem preferable. Yet if May’s government isn’t leading the negotiations, who is? On what authority?

This truly does seem a nightmare, and therefore a serious warning to anyone considering big-issue plebiscites: there must be agreement beforehand about what course of action results from each possible outcome of the vote.

There are, as noted earlier, other traditional warnings about direct democracy. Yet most seem to come down to a belief that there is some reliable superior arbiter of what is right than the people; for all my disaffection with democracy I’m just not sure that there is. Representative democracy depends on the people choosing representatives who will make better choices than themselves. As noted, it just doesn’t seem like that’s how elections even work.

The rights of the minority are often raised as a warning against direct democracy. Americans voted against same-sex marriage rights in a number of states, after all. But it’s unclear to me what should be empowered to restrain the majority from making bad choices. Mostly, people pursuing this objection seem to rely on a belief that America’s Constitution is a more reliable protector than popular opinion… yet, setting aside the fact that the Constitution can (in theory) be amended, the Constitution seems not to have been that great a protector of minority rights, historically. The Constitution has not protected LGBTQ rights, or abortion rights, or many other rights; certain judges (and those who accepted those judges’ decisions) have established those rights, and certain other judges can very conceivably un-establish them.

At any given time a majority of the people are certainly capable of being capricious, unfair, cruel and simply wrong… yet where are the Philosopher Kings to determine justice instead? How can they be identified, if they even exist, except through selection by the entirely fallible people?

For practical purposes, I don’t deny that some kind of empowerment of elite decision makers is unavoidable. I hope one day that I may come up with some genuinely valuable ideas for how to get better elite decision makers than result from our current mess. Meanwhile, though, I do think that given the obvious inherent vulnerabilities of representative democracy, there is a legitimate role for direct democracy in at least some limited circumstances.

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