We can be judged by our own strength, but also by the relative strength of our adversaries. Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. election was also the defeat of Hillary Clinton, and all of what she represented. Last night’s unprecedented announcement that embattled French President Francois Hollande would not seek a second term will no doubt offer a boost to any number of political rivals, both in Hollande’s own Socialist party, as well as those on the center-right and far-right parties.

Yet those who run for office, ready to present themselves to the public as a solver of their problems and a vessel of their trust, must be aware of a weakness in the system that runs deeper than any one candidate. The obvious case in point was last June’s "Brexit" vote, where British voters registered their disgust with the entire ruling class in a referendum that was proposed by the prime minister himself. We know how that ended — it sent David Cameron packing and threatened to unravel the entire European Union. Now in Italy, on Sunday, another referendum may have major consequences for the prime minister, as well as international ramifications of its own.

The wave of referendums points to the age-old tension between representative and direct democracy. Sure, people are fed up with their rulers. But ballot measures often are just a way of "challenging more than actually trying to agree on something," reports French daily Les Echos, citing researcher Thierry Chopin. "We rarely answer the question that's being asked. We judge first those who ask the question and we react to a context."

Ultimately democracy, beyond perhaps an apartment co-op board, is too big and complicated to be run directly. Whether we lash out at our representatives when they run for office, or via a referendum that they propose, citizens must rely on others to carry out the work of governing. The real tension, then, is between democracy itself and its alternative. And these days, democracy is looking pretty weak.


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