Zadie Smith on Brexit and the Blunt Instrument of Referendum

Democracy by referendum seems like a good thing since it creates policy unmediated by anything except the voice of the people. Why then does it so often feel wrong? Here in Massachusetts we had some referendum votes a number of years ago that illustrate part of the problem. One vote was to "ban cruel traps" of beavers and such. People in the city (like me) voted to ban them, since the word 'cruel' sounds bad, and they had no idea that beavers present a real problem out in the suburbs and rural areas, where the people voted against the referendum. The city people won, even though the problem didn't affect them. Then there was a referendum to get rid of rent control. People in the city, where rent control was relevant, largely voted to keep it. People outside the city (many of them absentee landlords) voted to get rid of it, and they won. Am I saying we would have been better off leaving the question to the policy wonks? Um, er, maybe, uh, I don't know.

All of that came to mind when I read the novelist Zadie Smith's essay on Brexit over at the New York Review of Books. Here's what she said:
"A referendum magnifies the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate. It has the appearance of intensification—Ultimate democracy! Thumbs up or thumbs down!—but in practice delivers a dangerously misleading reduction. Even many who voted Leave ended up feeling that their vote did not accurately express their feelings. They had a wide variety of motives for their vote, and much of the Remain camp was similarly splintered.
"Some of the reasoning was almost comically removed from the binary question posed. A friend whose mother still lives in the neighborhood describes a conversation over the garden fence, between her mother and a fellow North London leftist, who explained to my friend’s mother that she herself had voted Leave in order “to get rid of that bloody health secretary!” Ah, like so many people across this great nation I also long to be free of the almost perfectly named Jeremy Hunt, but a referendum turns out to be a very ineffective hammer for a thousand crooked nails."


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