Do democracies need referenda?

Zack Case is a third year Classics student at King’s. He is currently co-chair of King’s Politics, having previously been speakers’ officer. Passionate about Arsenal football club, American politics and Greek literature, he argues below that we kid ourselves by claiming the democracy invented by the Greeks as our own. We’re not so democratic at all – unless we reintroduce referendum. This piece was awarded second place in the the college-wide James Essay competition.


“…Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

– Winston Churchill

Demokratia, ‘people-rule.’ In the strongest possible terms, democracies need referenda, ‘that which must be brought back [to the people].’ If a government is truly ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ then it must be governed accordingly: by referenda. The referendum is the constitutive democratic procedure; it makes democracy democratic. As much as (some) Western politicians may laud ‘democratic values’ and parade their ideals of ‘liberal democracy,’ they are not really talking about democracy. The modern – post-Classical, rather – version of rule by the people (‘representative democracy’) is a pale shadow of the form of government which saw its truest condition in Athens of the fifth century BC.[1] The Athenians might call it democrato-oligarchy.

The many vote for the few to vote for the many. The representatives of the people (MP’s, Senators and so forth) might not act in accordance with the wishes of those they claim to represent, and there is occasionally a tension between following the party line and the will of the represented constituents (think Nick Clegg letting Lib Dem voters down by breaking his promise not to raise tuition fees). Nor is the will of the people, the majority, necessarily represented by the outcome of an election (consider that the candidate with the national popular vote has not won the US election now on five occasions). Instead of voting for a specific policy, post-Classical representative democracy involves voting for a person and party which is all-too-often an imperfect match for your values (you might agree with Trump on tax cuts but not on walls, yet you must vote for the ‘whole package’ to get your tax cuts). How undemocratic! In the ‘Education’ section of the British parliament website, the government writes, ‘We live in a democratic country, which means we all have a say in how the country is run.’ Sure, except that to call Britain a democracy – with its unelected, unaccountable House of Lords and its unelected, unaccountable monarch, not to mention its elected but all too often unaccountable MPs and its current unelected Prime Minister – does not stretch too far beyond propagandist rhetoric.

Let us not forget that post-Brexit ‘Remainers’ have slandered David Cameron’s decision to let the British people ‘have their say’ on the European future of the United Kingdom – precisely because he let people ‘have their say.’ The Brexit referendum was an anomaly, a democratic anomaly, which only draws attention to the shadow-democracy that constitutes the political norm. Indeed, there is a current debate in the Supreme Court over whether Article 50 needs to be triggered by a vote in Parliament, despite the results of the Brexit referendum. The will of the people really does not count for much today. No wonder that the electoral college system remains in place in the US; the undemocratic fear of ‘tyranny of the majority’ is as strong as ever. Since the demise of Athenian democracy, the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ continues to validate itself. Contemporary America seems to be run by a few rich and powerful families, Britain by a bunch of Bullingdon Club alumni. Executive power rests with the politicians; the big decisions are, safely they say, kept out of the hands of the people. The people don’t rule in what we call democracy. Representative democracy is only democratic in name.

But even Athenian democracy, for which the common epithets ‘direct’ or ‘radical’ democracy are merely synonyms for ‘true’ democracy, was not perfectly democratic. How could it be, when women were not voters, let alone citizens, and when slavery was a staple part of life? Notwithstanding such evident flaws, Athenian democracy by ancient standards[2] was as pure as it gets. The demos (people) – or at least those adult male citizens who turned up to the ekklesia (assembly) – determined their political, social, economic and foreign policies voting directly on those policies; there were no elections for candidates representing political parties. The boule (council of five hundred) which acted as a sort of executive committee for the ekklesia, was composed of officials who were drawn by lot and could not serve for two consecutive years or more than twice in a lifetime. The law courts were administered by jurors chosen by lot and paid after 462 BC to allow the poorest citizens to participate in democratic practice. There were elections for magistrates, and for strategoi (generals) alone after 486 BC, yet the elected office holders were not legislators in the sense of modern politicians but rather experts with military and (until 486 BC) civic duties who remained firmly under the jurisdiction of the assembly and were under constant scrutiny. Even Pericles was fined, and the generals who had failed to recover the war dead from the defeat at the battle of Arginousae were sentenced to death. Athenian democracy demanded accountability unlike anything in modern politics. Power, at least in theory,[3] resided with the people in the assembly and the law courts. The demos both constituted the nomos (law) and was subject to it. The demos was sovereign. And the assembly referendum, allowing the citizen to vote directly on laws and policies, rendered the demos so. Democracy is the form of government which gives power directly to the people – not just to imperfect representatives of the people – and the sovereignty (kratia) of the demos is its necessary condition. This can only occur when political decisions are made by popular referenda. To be called a people-ruling government, the people must rule.


The contrast between Athenian democracy and modern ‘democracy’ is no clearer than in the contrast between political decisions to go to war. In the fifth century, war, not peace, was the norm and Athens voted itself into war nearly every year. That is to say, the enfranchised male Athenian citizens hyper-frequently voted themselves and their sons into battle; they were the hoplites and rowers in the fleet who were willing to fight and die for their country. Just ask Thucydides’ Pericles. Compare that level of citizen participation in perhaps the most important decision a government can make to the way in which modern democracy places the choice to fight or not to fight in the hands of the elite, sometimes regardless of overwhelming public opinion. And in America, the big red button is in very dangerous hands right now. Compared to the Athenian ‘hoplite democracy,’ modern politicians just send soldiers into war when they call for it, in the name of ‘national service’ in an emergency. It is a great irony that Britain looked curiously like a totalitarian state in WWII, at the same time as the Allies took part in the greatest ever fight for democracy against fascism. Fighting for democracy means suspending democracy, especially when soldiers have no capacity to choose whether they go to war or not.

That is not to say that pure democracy is the best (or even a good) form of government. It certainly has had its critics since its inception: Plato, Thucydides, the Old Oligarch to name some of the most explicit. Brexit seems to present a particularly easy opportunity to critique the referendum process which seems to endorse the political ineptitude of the masses, especially in what some are calling the post-truthy, believe-what-you-want-to-believe world of today. But the cluelessness of the masses and the danger of spin are not problems confined to Donald Trump’s truth-defying election campaign or a mendacious slogan on the Brexit Leave campaign bus. Athens faced the same problems too, as Plato, whose anti-democratic stance was no doubt influenced by the trial and execution of Socrates, was all too keen to point out. His Republic provides two of the most influential criticisms of democracy: that people are not political experts and that politicians govern to please the people in order to retain power. Hence the brilliant, counter-intuitive argument that philosopher-kings, endowed with political expertise of course, ought to rule precisely because they are care least about being in power. 2016 saw a great, and somewhat inexplicable, backlash against expertise in politics. So Donald Trump, an outsider to Washington, was able to defeat Hilary Clinton, a woman who was perceived to be too familiar with Washington, too qualified, too expert. Fact-denier defeated fact-checker. The same popular logic can be said to explain Brexit and the majority’s taking of the layman’s word of Nigel Farage above the expert advice of hundreds of professional economists, lawyers and others in their respective fields. 2016 seems to prove Plato more right than he could have imagined: people make unimaginably bad political decisions and politicians will do anything to gain or stay in power. Indeed, David Cameron’s decision to hold an EU referendum in the first place was driven by his desire to win a general election! Clearly, Cameron had not read his Plato. The referendum makes democracy potentially dangerous. And, with Trump in the Oval Office, might we recall that Plato was the first to warn that democracy naturally degenerates into tyranny?

Beyond Plato’s criticisms, perhaps the greatest flaw in the referendum is its inability to offer compromise. The minority will always be upset. Aeschylus’ Eumenides, a play which has often been interpreted as a paragon of Athenian democracy, ultimately dramatizes the irreconcilable democratic problem of a split vote. Despite its apparently ‘happy ending,’ it is far more problematic than many scholars have been inclined to make out. In Aeschylus’ play concluding the Oresteia trilogy, Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, is able to absolve Orestes of the charge of matricide by the weight of her vote (as well as by an unsettling combination of threats and bribery to win over the Furies who are prosecuting Orestes). But this is drama – tragedy, an inherently self-questioning genre – and in life disputes of such stakes are hardly resolved so cleanly. Whether Orestes, who killed his mother because she killed his father, is guilty or innocent is a question that is never convincingly answered, despite Athena’s authoritative (tyrannical?) intervention. ‘What shall I do?’ Orestes exclaims at the climactic moment before killing Clytemnestra in the Libation Bearers, the middle play of the trilogy. Orestes hesitates because he faces an irreconcilable clash: he is forced to pick between father and mother. The Eumenides consequently dramatizes a trial that simply cannot result in a unanimous verdict. The jury, like Orestes, must play a zero-sum game. Indeed, during several performances of Robert Ike’s Oresteia (2015), so the director said, the audience were spurred to shout out ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ during a pause towards the end of the trial scene – but never in total agreement. The Oresteia raises disturbing questions which penetrate the very heart of democracy. What happens when a split in a vote is entrenched, when Athena does not show up to resolve the conflict? Does a margin of one vote constitute a majority? The Brexit referendum revealed the degree to which Britain is a polarised country: can a 52-48 percentage split be said to reflect the will of the people? Can a reductive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ even provide an adequate solution to a dispute? There are clearly problems with democracy as a form of government. It is the worst…


            But still, but still. The referendum is democratic, for better or for worse. It also encourages citizen participation rather than the general apathy towards Western political elections; and it is obvious to say that more votes produce a more democratic result. So a 72% turnout for the Brexit vote produces a result more indicative of the will of the people than a 66% turnout for the 2015 general election (the highest ever, and strikingly high compared to turnout for local elections). In any case, it is important not to forget that decisions made by popular referendum haven’t always been disastrous. The Scottish people came to their senses in 2014 when they voted to remain part of the United Kingdom; the Athenian people achieved magnificent things, for example endorsing some of the greatest cultural landmarks of the fifth century and today (the decision to build the Parthenon, to name the most iconic, must have been passed in the assembly). Even on the most local level, King’s College Student Union has achieved success by referendum,[4] for instance in the passing of a motion to install gender neutral toilets in the bar to name the most recent accomplishment (albeit this still had to pass through the college council). And for all the checks and balances which representational democracy is supposed to provide, Hitler was elected, I hesitate to add. Trump too.


For those who are keen to jump on Plato’s bandwagon, I would give the full Churchill quote from which I took the epigraph to this essay: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Churchill is spot on here. The same man who saw that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” also acknowledged that “all those other forms” had produced nothing better. In fact, other forms are far worse. Plato’s Republic is only a utopian – and totalitarian – ideal. For all its defects, there is no fairer system of government than democracy. Modern representational democracy, despite its manner of parading democratic rhetoric instead of conducting proper democratic practice, does live up to the standards set by Athenian democracy in two respects: the principles of isegoria (‘freedom of speech’) and isonomia (‘equality before the law’) are the cornerstones of a fair and liberal society. But the main ingredient in this recipe for democracy is missing: the referendum.

The argument is simple – a priori, to give it sexy philosophical jargon. Democracy means ‘people-rule’ in ancient Greek, and democracy meant people-rule in ancient Athens. This is because Athenian democracy was governed by referenda. To be worthy of the name, the system of government must accordingly be people-ruling – the Greek name that is, for demokratia is a Greek word after all. Modern so-called representative democracy is not as democratic as politicians like to make out. There is a question of whether we could ever return to the practice of Athenian democracy, and the answer is, unfortunately, that we have come too far from the fifth century. Whether it is because populations are far larger, there is no neutral and authoritative forum for national public debate (the fact that social media is extremely partisan does not help), contemporary political issues require more expertise (especially concerning the economy), there is too little time to spend deliberating on the sheer amount of contemporary political business, and populations are less homogenous, the referendum will continue to be a rare occurrence, at least on a national level – to the detriment of democracy. There has been ongoing debate since the fifth century on the merits and detriments of referenda in politics, but debate is all part of the democratic process. Churchill’s wry apophthegm about the badness democracy and all other forms of government expertly summarises the debate. Regardless of its effectiveness as a political system, to be a democrat is, as Aristotle rightly puts it in his Politics, to be ‘capable of participating in deliberative or judicial office.’ To participate (koinonein) in government is to vote directly on policy. Modern representative democracy only allows a fraction of its citizens to be democrats, to participate. How far we have strayed from true democracy! In other words, how far from government by referenda.

[1] Although Switzerland’s version of direct democracy doesn’t stray too far from the standards of the fifth century

[2] Women and slaves were not considered to be capable of making their own decisions – so how could they trusted to take part in the government of the polis?

[3] Compare Thucydides’ comment that Athens under Pericles was only ‘a democracy in name, but in fact governed by its first citizen.’ But Thucydides was no ardent democrat and we would be wise to take his comment with a pinch of salt. In any case, what is important is Athens’ status as a hypothetical true democracy – and I like to believe that Athens did live up to its reputation.

[4] The student-political process at King’s is quite similar to Athenian democracy, with anybody able to speak in front of the student body at an open meeting, chaired by the Exec which acts as the boule, and with voting conducted by a show of hands.


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