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Can direct democracy defeat populism?

Sep 19,2019 - Last updated at Sep 19,2019

SARAJEVO — Ever since the double disasters of 2016 — the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and US President Donald Trump’s election — there has been widespread anxiety about a “global wave” of populism, and hand-wringing over the follies of so-called direct democracy. In the UK, the electorate was asked to answer an overly simplistic in-or-out question; in the United States, the 2016 Republican Party primaries were handed over to irresponsible voters and radical activists. Since then, there have been calls to re-empower the “gatekeepers”, which is a polite way of saying that the unwashed masses should be kept as far away from political decision-making as possible.

Yet this liberal impulse reflects a misreading of recent history: It was elites, not the masses, who enabled Brexit and Trump. Moreover, an unashamedly elitist disdain for direct democracy not only confirms populist rhetoric, but also ignores the fact that referenda can be highly effective weapons against populists.

Trump and Brexit agitators like Nigel Farage do not owe their victories to some fatal flaw in direct democracy, but rather to the elites who collaborated with them along the way. British conservative leaders may have held their noses at Farage, but many ultimately deemed his case for Brexit to be sound, just as the Republican Party establishment granted Trump its formal imprimatur. Yes, millions of British voters would go on to vote for “Leave”, and millions of Americans voted for a manifestly unqualified presidential candidate. But that is partly because they had been assured by familiar figures like Boris Johnson and former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich that they were doing the right thing.

Moreover, party elites did not just give populists their stamp of approval. They also abdicated their own responsibility for formulating coherent policy platforms. The Brexit referendum was a direct result of Tory leaders’ inability to come to a collective, binding decision on the question of EU membership. And the Republican Party effectively outsourced its candidate-selection process to private cable TV stations, whose main concern is attracting viewers.

Still, aren’t liberals on to something when they allege a deeper connection between populism and direct democracy? After all, populist politicians usually try to establish a direct link between themselves and the citizenry, cutting out traditional political parties and, when possible, professional journalists. A figure like Beppe Grillo, the founder of Italy’s Five Star Movement, invariably criticises established politicians and traditional media in the same breath. All populists claim to have unique knowledge of the “real people” and their will, and promise to serve as their “voice”.

This claim is entirely theoretical: Both “the people” and “the voice” are merely symbolic constructions. In practice, no one except the populist leader actually needs to speak. A referendum, then, has a very particular meaning for populists. Having already constructed the “real people”, the answer to any question about the people’s will is known in advance. Thus, for populists, the role of “the people” is completely passive. They need only check the right box to confirm what the populists have already been saying.

That is only one conception of direct democracy, though. Another approach views a referendum as one point in a broader and, above all, open-ended process of deliberation, wherein citizens weigh different claims — and the evidence for and against them — before eventually coming to a decision. Rather than playing into populists’ hands by reempowering gatekeepers, we should be asking how referenda can be made to serve their proper democratic function.

Of course, one could point out that the damage is already done, at least in countries like Hungary, Turkey and Poland, where populists have used elections, and sometimes highly manipulative “national consultations”, to consolidate their power. 

Social scientists are only just beginning to grapple with the question of how authoritarian populist regimes can be transformed back into proper democracies. We need new strategies for confronting what has variously been called “democratic backsliding”, “constitutional retrogression”, and “autocratisation”.

One idea is to focus on the fact that many authoritarian populist governments benefit from a highly divided opposition, which is sometimes the result of conscious engineering by the populists themselves. A divided opposition has more difficulty forming coalitions and selecting the best possible candidate for challenging entrenched populists (because every party wants its own champion in the mix). Consider the tortured discussions surrounding Hungary’s 2018 parliamentary election. After debating whether the far-right Jobbik party should — or even could — ally with the liberal left, the opposition parties remained largely separate, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz-KDNP alliance took 133 of 199 parliamentary seats.

Needless to say, forming a coalition of the far right and the left is highly problematic. But another problem is that even if voters want a change in government, they may be reluctant to engage in tactical voting that could yield an equally bad or even worse alternative. Hungarian liberals can hardly be blamed for refusing to cast their votes for a Jobbik candidate.

Referenda offer one way out of this dilemma, owing to their binary structure. Although they often bring together unusual coalitions, that scarcely matters to the individual voter. Once the referendum is over, the purpose of the coalition has been served. Even better, referenda can be crafted in such a way as to expose the unpopularity of a populist government, thereby undermining its claim to represent the will of the people.

Understanding the truly democratic potential of referenda, some authoritarian populist governments have made genuine bottom-up initiatives more difficult. It may seem contrary to the conventional wisdom, but direct democracy could work against populism. There is no guarantee that such a strategy will succeed in any given context; but it is better than just waiting for salvation from the gatekeepers.


Jan-Werner Mueller is professor of politics at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “Democracy Rules”. Project Syndicate, 2019.

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