Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Primer on referenda

It became a prime topic this past year. (More complicated, I think, than necessary.) With the British vote on EU membership next month, the importance might hang over into next year. Here is a link to The Economist's briefing.

Europe is seeing a rising tide of referendums. In the 1970s, on average, three were held each year. Now the figure is eight…

Fans of direct democracy argue that it engages citizens. Referendums “stimulate debate"…

But the recent referendums are not just wholesome exercises in civic engagement. They also reflect widespread alienation from politics and anger at the governing class. Support for old political parties has withered, while populist, anti-EU parties are gaining ground. Governments derided as elitist and out of touch find it hard to resist calls to submit controversial issues to a popular vote…

Some referendums are called by mainstream politicians trying to fend off pressure from populists… Others are pushed by populist leaders mustering ammunition against… policies they dislike…

Referendum fever poses several problems. For a start, it makes it increasingly hard to agree on transnational policies. Treaties are generally signed by governments and then ratified by legislatures. Adding referendums to the mix hugely complicates matters. “It’s almost impossible now to see how 28 states would ratify an EU reform treaty,” says Stefan Lehne of Carnegie Europe, a think-tank. Minorities of voters in smaller countries may be able to stymie Europe-wide policies…

… some argue that human rights should not be subject to majority vote. What a majority gives, it can also take away…

The idea that referendums foster engagement is questionable, too. As they have proliferated, the median turnout for nationwide referendums has fallen from 71% in the early 1990s to 41% in the past few years (see chart)…

Paradoxically, then, referendums may end up increasing voters’ alienation. In countries such as Switzerland, the political system has adjusted to them. But elsewhere… they tend to make politicians look as if they do not know what they are doing….

Direct democracy is fine for things that don’t matter, such as the Eurovision song contest. But it is no way to run a country, let alone a continent.

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

What You Need to Know 7th edition is ready to help.

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Just The Facts! 2nd edition is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.

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The Comparative Government and Politics Review Checklist.

Two pages summarizing the course requirements to help you review and study for the final and for the big exam in May. . It contains a description of comparative methods, a list of commonly used theories, a list of vital concepts, thumbnail descriptions of the AP6, and a description of the AP exam format. $2.00. Order HERE.

What You Need to Know: Teaching Tools, the original version and v2.0 are available to help curriculum planning.

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