After posting my initial piece on referenda, I had the good fortune of engaging a reader (and friend) about the post. He raised some excellent points about self-determination, which I’ll probably address in a later piece. However, I realized over the course of the conversation that I had failed to include one other undemocratic element of referenda: their failure to include all interests.
As I pointed out, referenda tend to be biased toward those seeking a positive outcome. In other words, those that want change generally turn up in higher numbers than those that are indifferent or opposed. But referenda can also just exclude interested parties entirely by only accounting for those “directly affected.” In the Brexit case, this meant only allowing British citizens to vote. But it’s not just British citizens that will be impacted by Brexit. It’s certainly an important issue for Ireland given the uncertain status of N. Ireland, and it impacts the broader E.U. as well. It even affects the U.S. because Americans have long counted on the Atlanticist Brits to help represent and promote Anglo-American interests within Brussels. Why didn’t these other constituencies get a vote?
Of course, this example is a tad absurd. While Brexit will impact the United States, it is certainly ridiculous to say that Americans should get to vote on the future of another sovereign country. But other cases of secession are not as clear. What if Texas were to leave the U.S. (it can’t, so this is hypothetical)? This would be disastrous for the United States. Oil exporters and refiners in Louisiana would be devastated by the disruption to their previously integrated energy markets. The United States would lose some of its top public and private universities that both boost human capital and attract brilliant minds from around the world. A large number of America’s most important military bases would have to be shuttered. And domestic politics would be disrupted as well, likely to the detriment of the GOP. In other words, there would be huge ripple effects for the entire country. But we don’t just need to think hypothetically; the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Soviet Union caused similar amounts of dislocation. Integrated supply chains and customs unions were disrupted and eliminated, and regions that once had access to the sea were suddenly landlocked. In these cases it was state collapse, not referenda, that triggered these disruptions. But if Scotland had voted to leave the United Kingdom in its 2015 referendum, for example, it would have created many of the same effects.
The point is that with secession, but also other major decisions decided by referenda, there are frequently spillover effects that impact constituencies that lack the right to participate in the referendum process. By deliberately excluding their voices but forcing them to suffer the costs, referenda create large negative externalities that are difficult to escape. By suppressing these constituencies’ right to represent their interests and priorities, referenda serve to undermine democracy.