Yes and No: The problem of bad referendums

From Brexit to Turkey, the use of referendums is on the rise around the world. They're seen as a way of getting politicians and experts out of the way to let 'the people' decide on major policy decisions, and making democracy work more directly. Leah Trueblood is a PhD student at Oxford University. She warns that ill-conceived referendums are actually dangerous for democracies.
Supporters of the 'no' vote, chant slogans during a protest against referendum outcome in Turkey in April, 2017. PhD student Leah Trueblood points to Turkey as a good case study in what could go wrong with a referendum. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)
Listen to the full episode53:59

From Brexit to Turkey, the use of referendums is on the rise around the world. They're seen as a way of getting politicians and experts out of the way to let 'the people' decide on major policy decisions, and making democracy work more directly. Leah Trueblood is a PhD student at Oxford University. She warns that ill-conceived referendums are actually dangerous for democracies. This episode is the latest in our series Ideas from the Trenches, showcasing innovative work of PhD students across the country. 

PhD student Leah Trueblood explains to producer Tom Howell why the Brexit vote wasn't necessarily democratic. 1:08


 

"What worries me about referendums as devices of direct democracy is the idea that votes can solve problems. Votes can't do that." — Leah Trueblood, D. Phil at Oxford University.
 

PhD student Leah Trueblood argues that referendums can be dangerous for democracy
PhD student Leah Trueblood argues that referendums can be dangerous when seen as a tool of direct democracy. All too often, they mangle complicated issues in the attempt to put a simple question to a 'yes' or 'no' vote. The results of using referendums wrongly can undermine the checks and balances essential to democratic government — especially by jeopardizing institutions like the courts and parliaments.

Britain's 'Brexit' and Turkey's referendum on increasing the power of its president are two examples of bad referendums, according to Trueblood. 

When and how can we trust 'the people' with big policy decisions, where the consequences can be so great, and understanding the issues can be so difficult?


Guests in the program:



**Ideas from the Trenches is produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.
 

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