This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.
Referendums are puzzling because they are ubiquitous. Described in the theoretical literature as “veto-player institutions,” referendums are used as frequently by autocratic dictators as they are employed in constitutional democracies. As an institution championed by both Hitler and Churchill, as well as Augusto Pinochet and Woodrow Wilson it is not surprising that political scientists of an earlier generation felt that they defied all attempts to develop testable hypotheses and that referendums—in the words of Arend Lijphart from his 1984 book Democracies—“fail to fit any clear universal pattern.”
More recently, beginning in the 1990s, however scholars from both historical institutional as well as rational choice schools have begun to develop testable propositions as well as they have advanced explanations as to the origins, practice and consequences of the increased use of referendums. Further, in addition to general theories of voting behaviour in referendums, an emerging literature has been established, which has investigated the policy consequences of referendums. These consequences include, lower levels of inequality, higher levels of trust in government and lower levels of public spending. Compared to an earlier period characterised by ideographic single country studies, and a general pessimism regarding the prospect of developing general theories, the study of referendums has entered a ‘revolutionary’ phase in the Kuhnian sense of the word. While no general paradigm has emerged, scholars are increasingly confident that general recurrent patterns exist and that it is possible to develop law-like statements about the emergence, use, and implications of the use of the referendum.