Of the various attempts to delegitimize the Brexit referendum, one of the most opportunistic is the argument that the decision should be voided or ignored on democratic grounds. A variety of commentators have hidden their contempt for the public by temporarily donning the mantle of democracy, not out of any principled and consistent commitment to popular sovereignty, but instead for the purposes of dismissing the will of the majority. These arguments are problematic because they appear to recognize the principle of democratic legitimacy, only to conclude or imply that those without such legitimacy ought to make decisions instead.
Take, for instance, the well-known Harvard economist Ken Rogoff. Writing about the British referendum in Project Syndicate, Rogoff claims “this isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence…has been made without appropriate checks and balances.” Rogoff gives a list of unconnected reasons as to why the referendum was undemocratic, “Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the UK’s population really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not… The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term… The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles. That’s why enacting, say, a constitutional amendment generally requires clearing far higher hurdles than passing a spending bill.” Rogoff is representative of a trend in commentary because he packs a number of widely heard arguments in one article.
Consider the argument that the referendum isn’t properly democratic because decisions of enormous consequence should have a higher hurdle than majority rule. This is not an argument that pro-EU intellectuals made prior to the referendum, nor when Parliament voted overwhelmingly to hold the referendum, nor in those instances when simple majorities were sufficient to integrate or expand the EU. For instance, France ratified the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 by a slim 51.1% majority, Denmark passed a qualified Maastricht in 1993 with 56.8%, and Finland, Sweden and Norway passed enlargement referenda in 1994 with 56.9%, 52.8% and 52.2% majorities respectively. It is hard to find anyone looking back and arguing that those were democratically invalid. Nor is it likely these objections would have been raised had the UK voted Remain.
Moreover, this “choice of enormous consequences” objection against majority rule is not made in the case of, say, war. Would Rogoff like the war power to depend upon referendum-based super-majorities? A referendum taken in two consecutive years? The questions answer themselves because they are no more serious than the stated interest in democratic procedures.
How to explain this inconsistent appeal to democratic principles? The most reasonable interpretation is that those who accept Rogoff’s reasoning have a problem with majorities when they return a verdict they don’t like. The interest in supermajorities betrays a desire to defend the status quo against change. In the process, they reduce majorities to something like a stage army, bequeathing authority on institutions fundamentally hostile to the principle of democratic legitimacy. But whenever the people articulate an antagonistic will, a will inconsistent with the preferences of national elites, Rogoff and company decide the people don’t really exist.
Another variety of the democratic argument against democracy appears when some claim that the majority expressed no will at all. This was an argument expressed even before the referendum, when some, like Jonathan Portes [see correction],* argued that the vote did not allow the voters to express their true preferences. When presented with a binary choice of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain,’ the people had no opportunity to articulate what they really wanted. On that view, some people wanted to Leave and negotiate bilateral treaties, some wanted to Leave but retain the preferential trade agreements associated with membership in the European Economic Association, and some wanted to Remain. Each of these constituted a minority of the population, with the majority being an artifact of the procedure itself rather than an expression of an underlying reality. There was no true majority because there were multiple majorities. For instance, Portes believes that “given a straight choice…a majority of the electorate would probably have preferred Remain to the Norway option.” Concealed within the Leave vote were two very distinct preferences that the referendum, as presented, did not make possible to express. It is unclear why this is a special problem for referendum since votes that add up to Parliamentary majorities no doubt represent even more different positions and preferences. Yet commentators like Portes have not recommended we see Parliament as lacking democratic legitimacy. Nor indeed does this kind of argument get applied to many of the national-level decisions to join the EU.
But the problem here is not just the inconsistency in the argument but that it is wrong by its own lights. The will of the majority was not ambiguous. A majority of British voters voted to leave the EU. It is true, they did not say on what terms. That is up to Parliament to decide. But Parliament decided – by the overwhelming majority of 544-53 – to ask the people whether to stay in the EU or not, and the people gave an answer. They want to leave. Both the Leave and fully renegotiate or Leave and find a Norway-style option are consistent with the majority will.
What Rogoff, Portes, or other like-minded commentators won’t to admit is that they are only willing to extend the democratic critique of this referendum far enough to dissolve the democratic will that was expressed. After that, their political thinking is profoundly anti-democratic. Rogoff wishes to erect various barriers to majority rule – barriers he calls ‘checks and balances’ but also supermajority rules and, presumably, preservation of the EU itself. Portes says there is in fact no majority preference and therefore, implicitly, no good reason to accept the referendum’s political authority. Not to mention, this whole line of concern about the democratic credentials of the referendum runs up against the fact that its defenders raised little or no objection to the much more serious democratic deficits of the EU itself. As we have argued before, democracy is now the issue. We should not credit opportunistic appeals to democracy as reasons for dissolving the people in one of their rare, if imperfect, moments of appearance.
* Correction: In a previous version of this post I stated Portes’ affiliation incorrectly and mis-stated the timing of his post at the London School of Economics blog. I have also altered the post slightly to acknowledge the fact that, since Portes wrote the post before the referendum results, he was not involved in the same kind of criticism as those who used this kind of argument after the referendum to attack its legitimacy.