Here in California, we are accustomed to living in a system with a lot of direct democracy, a system where voters can vote on nearly everything, matters vital and trivial. We think it is only normal that we can overrule our representatives in the Legislature and even our Governors. This November, we'll be voting on at least 10 statewide propositions
-- and maybe more. That's how we live. By and large, our more successful politicians try to anticipate and conform their actions to policy preferences bubbling among constituents. The ability to meld popular enthusiasms with workable policies is the job of a politician. Otherwise we get terrible law (like the anti-tax rules of 1978's Prop. 13) and many pols lose their jobs.
In Britain, there have only been three all-country referendums since 1975: the first on joining what became the European Union, which passed; the next on adopting something rather like the "instant run-off"
voting that we use in San Francisco, which failed; and then the recent vote for Brexit, the vote to leave the EU. Brits don't do this very often.
Compared with what we have in California -- for better or worse -- Brits have a much more attenuated democracy. Without a written constitution, all power resides in Parliament; the party that controls the House rules. Brits have elections for Parliament, but the politicians don't seem to very closely mirror the sentiments of their electors. In the Brexit vote, only 24 percent
of the members of Parliament came out for leaving the EU. This suggests that probably more than half of them were out of tune with their constituents. Pointing this out is not to fault them as individuals for failing at some ideal representative function; it is merely to point this is far from unusual in British democracy.
In general elections for Parliament, the regular mode in which British voters express their democratic druthers, it is possible to get quite distorted outcomes that don't look very democratic (small "d") from over here. I've grabbed some charts from the Wikipedia
on the 2015 election. Note how little correspondence there is between the percentage of the vote each of the parties won and the number of seats that vote translated into. In particular, the over 12 percent of all voters who picked UKIP (the anti-immigrant party) and got one lousy seat for their pains likely were thoroughly pissed. This can happen in a multi-party system where the victory goes to whoever claws out a plurality within a geographical constituency.
The voters' preference for Brexit seems to have thrown British democracy into a tizzy. Both big parties, Labour and the governing Conservatives, are embroiled in unforeseen leadership struggles; Scotland and Northern Ireland which voted "Remain" are threatening secession; and all this while everyone is trying to absorb the shock of possible major economic and social rearrangements.
E J Dionne
in the Washington Post does his pundit thing:
Don’t trash democracy or the voters. Where complicated choices are involved — and Brexit defines complexity — leaders in representative democracies need the guts to make hard calls and submit themselves to voters afterward. They should not use referendums purely to evade responsibility.
[He attributes the Brexit victory to racism.] ... Responsible officials should always be ready to denounce racism. But their job description also requires them to provide realistic policy answers to quell the rage. If center-right and center-left politicians fail to do this, their parties will remain suspect.
That is, in Dionne's view, the kind of not very democratic democracy Britain employs only works if smart leadership is in place to rescue a volatile electorate from itself.
Yet it does seem obvious that if large segments of the electorate felt, accurately, that they were more fairly represented, they might be less volatile, less inclined to throw the system into tipsy gyrations as they just have.
And yes, our electorate here also needs to feel represented, at least in substantial majorities, or our institutions won't work either.