This year’s Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos. There was just one small problem. The peace deal hammered out under his leadership to end the world’s longest running war – between the Colombian military and Marxist guerrillas – had just gone up in smoke.
How had it happened? Santos had turned greedy. Basking in global approval, including by such luminaries as Pope Francis and President Obama, and reveling in what appeared considerable Colombian support, Santos called for a plebiscite. Despite a long history of national strife on precisely this issue, and despite no need for voter approval to make the peace deal official, Santos was certain he could win and then revel in electoral approbation.
Santos was wrong. He lost. Colombians who voted rejected the peace deal, 50.2 to 49.8 percent. Like Britain’s David Cameron, who was similarly spectacularly unsuccessful in trying to score public approval for a policy he particularly favored (remaining in the European Union), Santos was sure he could win public favor, only to be proven delusional.
On paper, direct democracy seems immensely appealing. It gives voters, ordinary people, the opportunity to say yay or nay on particular policy issues. What could be better? What could be more democratic than having the likes of you and me participate in collective decision making?
Turns out national plebiscites (sometimes called referendums) frequently come out badly. For reasons ranging from who turns out to vote, to how much information voters can secure, to reducing complex choices to simple yes and no answers, they can be risky and even dangerous, ironically undermining the democracies they are intended to secure.
Leaders who use plebiscites for whatever ostensible reason should be viewed with suspicion. For followers who vote in plebiscites cannot reasonably be trusted to do so wisely and well.