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Direct democracy: lessons from Trump and Brexit for international development

Written by Aoife McCullough


A debate has been raging in the US over whether Donald Trump’s rise is the result of ‘too much democracy’ (see here and here). Those complaining argue that if the system for nominating presidential candidates had remained an internal party decision, Trump would never have become the Republican nominee.

In the UK, many made a similar argument about the referendum on Brexit. The subtext to the sharing of videos and tweets from voters regretting their decision, and the article on British people googling the meaning of the EU, was that the question of the UK’s membership should never have been put to the people.

Of course, if you put a vote directly to the electorate, its choice might not align with the status quo. This is the risk inherent in ‘direct democracy’.

The most common alternative process for making decisions is representative democracy, where elected representatives make all key political decisions.

In reality, most modern democracies are formed of a combination of direct and representative processes, but there are indications that direct democracy is being more widely used as a form of decision making.

This preference for more direct democracy is reflected in international development practice. ‘The more direct democracy, the better’ is often the assumption underlying governance programmes. We provide support for civil society organisations campaigning for more public participation in major political decisions. We support movements for referendums. Where possible, we incorporate public participation and consultation into programme decisions.

So what should the development sector learn from Trump and Brexit? Here are three cautionary lessons on the risks of promoting direct democracy in other countries:

1. Direct democracy is more likely to facilitate change, but that change won’t go uncontested.

Direct democracy creates opportunities for change in the status quo. Brexit would never have happened unless it was put to a national vote: on the eve of the referendum, 75% of MPs supported remaining in the EU. Trump is an outlier within the Republican Party – as Obama was within the Democratic Party.

But this change can also provoke anger and resistance within certain groups. Amid shock and outrage at the Brexit result, for example, some commentators encouraged voters to call on their MPs to vote down the result in parliament.

If direct democratic processes are perceived to be supported by foreign agencies, the resistance to change by the status quo may be even more impassioned. Iran’s 1963 referendum on a range of reforms, including women’s suffrage and land redistribution, provoked a backlash from the clergy and powerful landowners. The clergy then became more active in their opposition to the Shah and shaped a narrative around the need to protect Iran from the corrupting influences of the West. Think how ‘remain’ voters in the UK would have felt if they believed that foreign agencies had promoted the idea of a referendum on Brexit

2. Direct democracy can create new divisions.

Every British person is now acutely aware of the differences in outlook between urban, educated, city dwellers and less educated, small town and rural dwellers. Those differences were there before Brexit, but Brexit made the differences visible and politically important.

Too often, we attribute divisions and conflict around the time of elections and referendums in developing countries to problems associated with ‘immature democracies’. Kenya’s 2008 post-referendum crisis, for example, was characterised as ‘ethnic violence’ based on historic divisions.  But these old divisions were being overlaid by new divisions between those who supported the new constitution and those who opposed it.

Direct democratic processes are divisive – especially when the choice is limited to two options.

3. We shouldn’t just dismiss anti-democratic views as authoritarian.

When candidates who represent values antithetical to our own emerge from a system based principally on direct democracy, that system can seem like a very bad idea. There are plenty of people around the world, who for these reasons, think that democracy is the wrong way to produce good governance.

In the world of international development, we tend to dismiss these positions as ‘authoritarian’. We need to be more open to debate about the very real risks of using direct democracy and whether it is the best way to make political decisions in all situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against direct democracy. When the new constitution was approved by the plebiscite in Kenya in 2010, it was a hugely promising moment. But the second referendum process was also based on a combination of representative and direct democracy processes.

In our work in developing countries, we need to avoid assuming that direct democracy is always a positive thing. There are other ways of making decisions. In some situations, deliberative or representative decision making, or a combination of these may be less risky for international agencies to support.