Nearly a million people marched in the streets of London last weekend, demanding a second referendum on Brexit. Like the original vote, citizens are once again looking outside representative democracy to “take back control” and own their future — this time from a clueless government and paralyzed Parliament.
“We are united against Britain’s needless act of self-harm,” one of the leaders of the demonstrations, Lara Spirit, writes in The WorldPost this week. “The million who marched were from every corner of the country, from all backgrounds, from every political party and from none. They were led by young people, who in 2016 voted overwhelmingly against Brexit and who will disproportionately bear the cost of this doomed project.” Britain’s youth, “who are forced to make sense of something that makes no sense for our country,” she says, are “outraged by the abject failure of their representatives, and they will not forget a government bereft of leadership and an opposition that failed to hold those leaders to account.”
Democracy, the 22-year-old co-president of the student organization “Our Future, Our Choice” argues, is not located in the fractured members of the ruling Conservative Party who are focused on saving their own skin, but “in the masses who decry this mess.”
For Spirit and her youthful colleagues, the only exit from the present Brexit stalemate is a second referendum. Of all options considered in non-binding votes by Parliament Wednesday, the idea of another referendum was among the most popular. That suggests it could yet emerge as a viable track forward in the tumultuous weeks ahead.
Indicative of the future of democracies everywhere, the whole Brexit episode has upended the old system in which political parties and parliamentarians run the show. There is now another formidable player: the public itself through the direct democracy of referendums where citizens are mobilized by extensive use of social media.
Great Britain is not alone on this course. In Italy, the Internet-based Five Star Movement came to power under the slogan “Participate. Don’t delegate,” and its government has appointed the first ever minister of direct democracy to oversee a new process where citizens can initiate and make laws by a direct vote. The city of Madrid now allows the public to vote on any measure qualified by signatures of at least 1 percent of the city’s population. The key demand of the “yellow jackets” in France is, like their counterparts in Italy, to institute the kind of citizens’ initiatives that California, for better and worse, has long implemented. Indeed, California is already a direct democracy, where the most consequential decisions are made not by the governor and legislature, but by citizens directly at the ballot box on taxes, budget, the environment and other key issues.
If more direct democracy is becoming the wave of the future, we need to consider how to integrate checks and balances into the process that brings some ballast to unmediated popular sovereignty. In short: participation without populism.
As I have written before in this space, “a key innovation of democracy today would be to proactively solicit priority concerns from the public through open platforms, empower knowledgeable officials to process those concerns into effective and consensual policy responses on a non-partisan basis, and then go back to citizens directly for approval of those proposals at the ballot box before they become law.”
Essentially, processing citizen concerns through a deliberative filter would amount to the same kind of “second reading” that routinely takes place in elected bi-cameral legislatures, where each house reviews and amends the other’s proposed measures to fix problems and ponder unintended consequences before taking a vote.
If a second referendum goes forward, former British prime minister Gordon Brownhas proposed one form of such a deliberative procedure — a series of “citizens’ assemblies” as popular platforms for debate and dialogue before the next vote. This kind of process, whereby citizens are brought together with non-partisan experts in a depoliticized space in order to reach consensus, managed to bridge the partisan chasm in Ireland last year, after which 90 percent of voters approved a referendum on the highly emotional issue of removing an anti-abortion clause from the constitution.
If such an institutionalized deliberative process for direct democracy had been in place before the original referendum, it would have exposed the disastrous repercussions we now all know a Brexit would mean, and it would likely have failed at the polls. Indeed, we may consider the last two years of debate and discovery since the original referendum as a demonstration of what a “second reading” of a consequential measure put up for a public vote would have looked like.
As the Brexit saga has demonstrated, lame attachments to forms of government that are no longer fit for purpose cannot resolve today’s challenges. What we need are new mediating practices and institutions that both complement and compensate for the waning legitimacy of representative democracy in our age of distributed power.