Debate Debrief: Are Referendums a Threat to Democracy?

Philosophers and Founding Fathers have notably warned against the “tyranny of the majority.” John Stuart Mill, James Madison, and John Adams all brought attention to the problems that might arise for ideological minorities in a direct democracy. Their writings stress that when you entrust political power to the people, you run the risk of encouraging majority rule.

Nevertheless, countries continue to turn towards public opinion when deciding on heavily contested issues. Referendums thus offer citizens a chance to directly participate in government. And the outcomes of these votes are nothing short of pivotal in the chronology of modern world politics. They can grant civil rights and sovereignty, but they can just as easily refuse it.

This past Tuesday, the club held a debate on whether or not referendums threaten democracy.

“Is it that we don’t trust the people? No — it’s that we don’t trust ourselves.” - Professor Shenefelt

Introducing the case for the proposition was Liberal Studies Professor Michael Shenefelt, who called into question the role of the referendum in a representative democracy. He warned of the dangers that arise when legislators turn to constituents to rid themselves of the burden of decision-making. Shenefelt also raised awareness to the ease with which referendums could be corrupted. He powerfully reminded us that those who are tasked with conducting referendums, “In framing the wording of the question, [also] frame the answer.”

Aiding Professor Shenefelt was Milad Mohammadi (CAS ‘18), who stressed that referendums can oversimplify issues. He argued that this is especially true in the case of complex political problems, where a mere “yes” or “no” option cannot and should not suffice.

“Referendums are not a threat to democracy, but the purest manifestation of it.” - Louis Bartholomew

Anand Balaji (Stern ‘19) opened the case for the opposition, pointing out the already-minimal role that public opinion plays in determining policy. His statistics showed that power does not truly rest in the hands of “the people,” but rather in the wallets and wastas of special-interest groups and elites.

Louis Bartholomew (CAS ‘18) approached the resolution from a philosophical perspective, assessing the validity of the arguments often made by those who oppose referendums. The general public can and will “make mistakes,” but that doesn't mean we ought to prevent them from participating in the political process. Bartholomew stressed that legislators are just as prone to erring when making crucial decisions.

By the end of the discussion, 19% of audience members sided with the proposition, 59% with the opposition, and 22% remained undecided.