Margaret Thatcher famously opined that "referendums are the tools of dictators and demagogues".

Strangely the position today seems uncannily similar to the days when Edmund Burke penned his famous lines about representative government. The French Revolution produced circumstances, which in the immediate aftermath provided very unstable government, leading to the reign of Robespierre and the terror.

However long before the Revolution occurred, this is part of the speech which Burke made to the electors of Bristol on 3 November 1774:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Also instructive here is the work of the Austrian political scientist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950). The Wiki entry on his Democratic Theory runs as follows:

Democratic theory

In the same book, Schumpeter expounded a theory of democracy which sought to challenge what he called the "classical doctrine". He disputed the idea that democracy was a process by which the electorate identified the common good, and politicians carried this out for them. He argued this was unrealistic, and that people's ignorance and superficiality meant that in fact they were largely manipulated by politicians, who set the agenda. This made a 'rule by the people' concept both unlikely and undesirable. Instead he advocated a minimalist model, much influenced by Max Weber, whereby democracy is the mechanism for competition between leaders, much like a market structure. Although periodic votes by the general public legitimize governments and keep them accountable, the policy program is very much seen as their own and not that of the people, and the participatory role for individuals is usually severely limited

Are there examples of referendums that later impinged on core civil rights, and that while popular at the outset, were later over turned or became increasingly unpopular due to unforeseen circumstances? Likewise, are there examples when politicians blocked a referendum that thwarted the will of the people, or that perhaps could not have been expected to pass through the standard legislative process?

  • It is worth remembering that when Burke talked about "his constituents" he was not talking about "all the people old enough to vote" and not even about "all the men old enough to vote", but of "all the men old and rich enough to vote"; a difference that could explain the apparent contradiction. Burke was quite conservative, he supported the Parlamentary English regime that still had the King at the top, but by no way he was a Republican.
    – SJuan76
    Dec 11, 2016 at 13:13
  • I tried to make this question a little more suitable for Politics. If you disagree with the edits, or if you feel they have compromised the question, feel free to roll them back. I do think the bones of a question are here.
    – user9790
    Dec 11, 2016 at 16:44
  • 1
    @KDog Ok. As you have been polite enough to own up I will let it run with your headings for a while. Let's see if the question can be reinstated.
    – WS2
    Dec 11, 2016 at 18:33
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    @KDog It depends on when you deem those "Brits" to have become Americans. Slavery was never lawful in the British Isles. There was simply nothing in the law of property which allowed for a person to be owned - as a few "slaves" discovered to their delight when they managed to escape their shipmasters sufficiently to apply to the British courts in Bristol and Liverpool.
    – WS2
    Dec 11, 2016 at 18:51
  • 3
    @KDog You should have understood by now that political and/or philosophical evangelizing is not welcome on this website.
    – Philipp
    Dec 12, 2016 at 13:33

2 Answers 2


In the United States, the ballot initiative has been used extensively in California, which can be seen as an experiment in its use From Ballotpedia:

Californians adopted the initiative process on October 10, 1911, becoming the tenth state to adopt this form of direct democracy. Three initiatives were on the California ballot the next year, in 1912, when measures 6, 7 and 8 -- to consolidate local governments, prohibit bookmaking, and set procedures for local taxation -- were all defeated. Through November 2014, 364 initiatives have qualified for the statewide California ballot. Voters have approved 123, an approval rate of 34 percent. From 1911 through November 2014, the California Constitution has been amended 52 times through the state's initiative process.

I would say it has components that have sought to weaken civil rights, but also has been a direct curb to state government power, and an important tool to protect the people from a rapacious government. I will tackle the second assertion first.

Consider (same source):

Anti-initiative forces tried again [to marginalize if not repeal the initiative]in 1920; this time using the initiative process themselves to propose a measure that would have made it virtually impossible to put any tax-related initiatives on future ballots (limiting the State's power to tax). Haynes mobilized his forces again and defeated the measure at the polls; and he won a third, similar contest in 1922. After this he changed the name of his California Direct Legislation League to "The League to Protect the Initiative," and for the rest of his life kept close watch over the legislature to make sure that it enacted no laws to restrict I&R procedures. Haynes died on October 30, 1937, at the age of 84.


One of California's most famous initiatives was Prop 13. "On June 6th, 1978, nearly two-thirds of California's voters passed Proposition 13, reducing the state's property tax by about 57%. Prior to Proposition 13 property taxes were out of control. People were losing their homes because they could not pay their property taxes. Yet, government did nothing to help them. In the finest tradition of the Boston Tea Party, California taxpayers stood up and said no more to excessive taxes. The Proposition 13 Revolution swept the country and made headlines around the world. It began a change of thinking about the tax burden taxpayers had to bear. Proposition 13 also started a revolution in the people turning to the initiative process to gain a greater control over their lives." The above account, provided by the Jarvis Taxpayers Association, points out correctly that the modern day movement to utilize the initiative process was brought about by the passage of Prop 13.

Other initiatives that circumscribed the States power included term limits and selection of judges.

However the same initiative has been used to curtail rights, the most famous of these is Prop 8 that outlawed same sex marriage. See Wikipedia.

There does seem to be an over reliance upon the initiative in California, and there is some evidence that it makes a lazy legislature, with initiatives covering off on things like fishing, boxing and wrestling. Calif State History

Based upon the above, it would seem that initiatives serve useful purposes in limiting or circumscribing the powers of government (so maybe if it could be used for just that purpose?), has been abused by the majority to circumscribe rights of their fellow citizens, and abused by the legislature for not being proactive in their responsibilities.

  • My own personal view is that of Schumpeter, that political parties are essential to the operation of democracy. And referenda are designed to circumvent parties. Suppose there were a referendum to abolish all taxes, and it got carried. What then?
    – WS2
    Dec 14, 2016 at 0:55
  • @WS2 There are a couple of items to consider. 1) Calif always had the benefit of the US Supreme Court, and indeed it mitigated some of the worst abuses of the referendum. 2) Calif has become a 1 party state, Democratic. It very well could be the most liberal state in the Union. That change coincided with massive immigration and transformation into a welfare state (1/3 of the US welfare cases are in CA but it has about a tenth of the population). No doubt the initiative played a role.
    – user9790
    Dec 14, 2016 at 13:18
  • @WS2 Also what I tried to demonstrate is that there might be a role for the referendum, when they are designed not to circumvent parties, but politicians. The worst abuses of government occur when the politicians of both parties agree on their own perks.
    – user9790
    Dec 14, 2016 at 13:22

Political parties

From a comment by the asker:

My own personal view is that of Schumpeter, that political parties are essential to the operation of democracy.

I don't get that view from the Schumpeter quote that you posted. He doesn't mention parties or referenda. But regardless, consider George Washington's opinion of political parties for an alternate view:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Note that Washington views political parties as a tool that prospective dictators can use to achieve domination. Which is actually a reasonably good description of how Adolf Hitler used the Nazi party in Germany more than a century later.

Referenda versus political parties

From the same comment:

And referenda are designed to circumvent parties. Suppose there were a referendum to abolish all taxes, and it got carried. What then?

Suppose two parties got together and one said that if it got tax cuts and military spending increases, it would give the other party growing domestic spending in return. We don't have to wonder what would happen. That's what Ronald Reagan and the Democratic Congress did in 1981 in the United States (US). Record deficits for the next fifteen years.

The problem with a party promising to do something and then not doing it is that it leaves voters unsatisfied. For example, Bill Clinton ran against trade with China but then followed the same policy as the previous administration once in office. Donald Trump would run on an anti-trade platform twenty-four years later, stealing many of the Bill Clinton voters.

Politicians take positions with which they don't agree for political benefit. Then the politician has to argue for the position. Even if they later fail to follow through, the voters have still been moved to that position. By contrast, a referendum offers much less benefit for a politician to take a position. They don't gain the same from arguing for it unless they actually benefit from it (e.g. a tax increase that they want to spend).

Referenda are vulnerable to demagogues like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, but they don't encourage them the way that candidate campaigns do.

Notice how abortion in the US in 1980 was much less polarized. A majority of Americans were in the muddled middle. However both parties took extreme positions in their platforms. Republicans were against any abortion from conception and Democrats were for even late term abortions. This is because the people who care most take the extreme positions and make for the best donors and volunteers.

Voters have followed the politicians into ever more polarized and extreme positions. Because political parties have to demagogue the positions that matter to their donors and volunteers to get them as well as more moderate voters. I.e. they have to convince moderate voters that their extreme positions are actually reasonable.

Referendum blocked by politicians

In 1988, California passed Proposition 103. Prop 103 was supposed to make everyone equal by focusing on driver's experience, safety record, and miles driven. Yet insurers continued to charge different rates in different zip codes. And the elected insurance commissioner didn't prevent it.

Referendum that bypassed politicians

In 2000, Arizona passed Proposition 106, which instituted a redistricting commission to take over redistricting duties. This never would have passed the legislature, as it essentially disempowers the legislature in favor of the commission. It could only pass via referendum or under extreme pressure from voters.

  • I'm not sufficiently versed in American politics to address this answer. I hope others may. However I can tell you that there is no way that the House of Commons (in which the party-system dominates) would ever have voted for anything so ludicrous as for Britain to leave the EU. The vote entirely fails to take account of realities which are well understood by legislators.
    – WS2
    Dec 14, 2016 at 20:07
  • @WS2 Not even after UKIP won a majority of the seats? Remember that the referendum in this case was to take Brexit away as an issue, so that the Tories wouldn't have to compete with UKIP. Cameron promised a referendum so as to keep voters with the Tories. You may hope that UKIP would never have been able to win an election, but that's what they said about Brexit before the referendum and about Trump before 2016. All that said, UKIP probably wouldn't have won this past election. But they might been able to make it into the governing coalition. And there will be other elections.
    – Brythan
    Dec 15, 2016 at 3:03
  • What do you mean "UKIP won a majority of seats"? UKIP has only ever won one parliamentary seat. Nigel Farage has failed seven times to win one. There are 652 other MPs in the House besides the lone UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell. And the overwhelming majority of them voted "remain". In normal circumstances the vote would have been substantially for "remain". What no one had allowed for was the chaos in the Labour Party. Had it had its usual centre-left leadership "remain" would have won, hands down.
    – WS2
    Dec 15, 2016 at 22:43

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