David A. Bell: The Case Against Referendums: From Greece to California, They Always End Up Undermining Democracy

David A. Bell, a Contributing Editor to The New Republic, teaches European History at Princeton.

In calling for a referendum on Greece’s bailout plan, Prime Minister George Papandreou has, it could be said, embraced one of his country’s oldest political traditions: direct democracy. The idea that the citizens of a state should all cast votes to decide matters of common interest was arguably born within an easy walk of his Athens office, some two and a half millennia ago.

Of course, referendums have remained a part of democratic politics into the modern era, with a formal place in the constitutions of many countries and regions, from France to Australia. In the United States, their use goes back to the town meetings of colonial New England, and they still have a crucial role in the politics of several states, notably California.

But the use of referendums as a political procedure has always been tense, even problematic, for democracies—and that is no less true of Greece’s planned vote in January. Papandreou says he is paying deference to the unmediated will of the Greek people, and so presents the vote as the very essence of democracy. Yet in fact, referendums have most often done more to weaken democratic institutions than to strengthen them, and this new example is no exception....

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