Skip to main content

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated Cookie policy, Privacy policy and Terms & Conditions

mueller21_Isabel InfantesAnadolu Agency via Getty Images_brexit protest Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Can Direct Democracy Defeat Populism?

For three years, we have been told that populist upsets such as Brexit and US President Donald Trump's election are the predictable results of giving too much power to the unwashed masses. In fact, populists owe their recent successes to elite complacency and complicity, and they have as much to fear from referenda as anyone else.

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.

We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.

To continue reading, subscribe now.


Get unlimited access to PS premium content, including in-depth commentaries, book reviews, exclusive interviews, On Point, the Big Picture, the PS Archive, and our annual year-ahead magazine.;
  1. pisaniferry106_Mark WilsonGetty Images_phase one agreement trump china  Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    Explaining the Triumph of Trump’s Economic Recklessness

    Jean Pisani-Ferry

    The Trump administration’s economic policy is a strange cocktail: one part populist trade protectionism and industrial interventionism; one part classic Republican tax cuts skewed to the rich and industry-friendly deregulation; and one part Keynesian fiscal and monetary stimulus. But it's the Keynesian part that delivers the kick.

  2. yu49_ShengJiapengChinaNewsServiceVCGviaGettyImages_G20trumpjinpingshakehands Sheng Jiapeng/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

    PS Say More: Keyu Jin

    Keyu Jin assesses the “phase one” US-China trade deal, questions whether the US can ever accept China’s development model, and highlights a key difference in how the Hong Kong protests are viewed inside and outside China.