People in the United States and Western Europe take democracy for granted––not only is it the best game in town, it has been the only game in town for some time. But 2017 has not been a normal year politically, and many people are beginning to see cracks in the system. The success of Donald Trump in the U.S. and far-right populist candidates in Europe caused worry as political scientists and pollsters began to notice small trends in public opinion that show openness to non-democratic alternatives, such as technocrats or benevolent autocrats.
Though democracy still shares wide support across the developed world, more and more people are open to something different. A recent report from Pew released on November 7 gives cause for concern in a slightly different manner, though, as people support democracy a little too much: the idea of direct democracy is carrying the salience of a supermajority preference.
Most countries in the developed world operate on some form of representative democracy. Citizens elect representatives who govern, imperfectly, on their behalf. But there is increasing support for a system of direct democracy, where citizens would determine legislation by voting on national issues. Only 37 percent of experts believe this would be a good way to govern, compared to a median of 68 percent of the general public across different nations in Europe and North America.
Meanwhile, only 37 percent of the general public says representative democracy is a “very good” way to organize government.
None of this means that representative democracy is being run out of town anytime soon, though some political scientists are particularly bearish on these trends, such as Harvard’s Yascha Mounk, who says that “in another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast” if they continue. It is increasingly clear from these polls and others that people are open to other options.
This question of representative democracy versus direct democracy may seem small when considering that younger generations are more and more open to authoritarianism. But this still doesn’t mean that direct democracy is good.
Individuals are inherently fallible. We have all sorts of internal biases, prejudices, and motivations that guide our behavior in often erratic ways. The economist Richard Thaler recently won the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics, a field that merges psychology and economic theory. Thaler has spent his career showing all the ways that humans err in the marketplace, urging for policies to nudge us to better decisions.
People do not magically lose all of their destructive tendencies when entering a voting booth. As political economist Michael Munger says, “every flaw in consumers is worse in voters.” In the marketplace, there are mechanisms that deliver feedback on bad decisions, such as when your bank account nosedives after an expensive purchase. This feedback mechanism isn’t as strong in the political realm, as the impact of a bad vote is often very small to non-existent on an individual level. The median voter also tends to not know much about politics and policy––even experts are pretty uninformed outside of their field. This makes the idea of national referendums on complex policy issues less than ideal.
Direct democracy would open the political process to being more of a blunt-force object than it is already. In our incredibly polarized political world, where competing sides view the actions of the other as an attack on their very being, it would only be a matter of time before there were referendum wars on hot-button social issues. It probably wouldn’t be long before a controversial measure that seeks to limit abortion (of which 50 percent of people think should be legal only under certain circumstances) or revoke the tax-exempt status of churches would be up for a national vote.
National referendums also don’t make sense in a country as big and diverse as the United States. It might make sense for a small, culturally homogeneous country, but not in a place of 330 million people that could reasonably be divided into eleven different nations with distinct cultures, as argued by Colin Woodward in his book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Americans are interacting less and less with their next-door neighbors, so why should they be legislating for someone who lives 2,000 miles away?
Americans take the idea of self-government very seriously, so it’s tempting to take that to its extreme logical conclusion. Representative democracy certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than any of the alternatives that have ever been proposed or tried. People should have a little less faith in themselves, and more faith in the liberal institutions that have shaped our world of unprecedented wealth, health, and happiness.
Jerrod A. Laber is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a writer living in northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate, and was a Writing Fellow with America’s Future Foundation.
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