The Challenge of Plebiscitary Leadership to Representative Democracy

In this paper (given at a GPI seminar “The Challenge of Populism to Representative and Federal Democracy”, 18 July 2019) I make three main arguments.

  1. On Populism I tend to the analysis put forward by Isaiah Berlin, among others, which refers back to ideas of agrarian fellowship and community. Most particularly to pre-revolutionary Russian peasantry and American small farmers before 1900. As grassroot movements they turned their backs on seeking power through the state – also they were allergic to the concept of being led. Where these movements did want to engage in politics they did so as a form of self-determination at the local level.

What we are now calling populism is simply the emergence of new political parties who are making an offer to a sizeable part of the electorate who see themselves unrepresented, and to an extent, disenfranchised. These parties are totally engaged in the battle for control of state power and perfectly comfortable with being led by the strong leader. The Brexit Party, and now the Conservative Party, are seeking to replace representative parliamentary democracy with plebiscitary democracy. A plebiscite is a direct vote by the electorate for a leader. In this sense the USA  embeds the plebiscitary principle in the election of the President by the people – but with a range of countervailing safeguards.

  1. This leads on to my second argument that plebiscitary democracy has expanded its reach within the British party political system, and we can date this back to the second term of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership. Earlier examples can be found – William Gladstone and Lloyd George – politicians who dominated the political landscape through their personal appeal to the mass of the electorate -and by appealing above political parties.

The trend is not continuous but pretty clear: Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and now Johnson who has become the leader of the Conservative Party on the basis of his personal appeal to the electorate. The electorate of Conservative Party members is miniscule and widely out of line with the wider franchise. It can be expected that Johnson’s elevation to Prime Minister will be seen as lacking legitimacy – and also illustrative of the rotten state of the British constitution.

What is coming to a head is plebiscitary leader-democracy. Leader democracy engages with the electorate in demagogic rather than the canalization of interests into party political platforms. Boris Johnson as prime minister is completing a tendency since Mrs Thatcher of turning party political competition into a plebiscite on the leader.

  1. This leads to my third point: We are heading for a crisis of political legitimacy. In part this is because of the conflict between the modalities of direct democracy (leadership plebiscites and the use of referendums) and that of representative democracy. In plebiscitary democracy, those in government must obey “the will of the people” as interpreted by the leader and his clique. In representative democracy the MP interprets her mandate as laid out in a party manifesto.

To this well known argument, I want to point out another contradiction. A plebiscitary leader is elected as a strong personality who will override the conventions and if necessary the constitutional rules – in order to get things done. These things are large: Brexit, make the nation great again, re-order the relationship with Brussels (to think of Salvini’s La Lega). BUT under the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy over the last three decades, the state has been hollowed out, given over to market solutions. The institutions of the state have been weakened and, to an extent, delegitimised. The state is no longer a rational apparatus of delivery and support of the citizen but instead cast as a burden on the preference-choosing citizen. Core state institutions, like the Treasury, have outsourced spending and in effect taxation as in private finance schemes – a regress to tax-farming. The Bank of England, always critical to the soundness of the currency and financial system, has been given delegated powers separate from parliament. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt in their competition for party leader made increasingly unrealistic promises, while at the same time the means for the delivery of their policies have been shrunk.

So-called Populism

Returning to Populism, obviously I am being old fashioned in referencing Isaiah Berlin – in a conference held at LSE back in 1967 (later published as Populism, edited Ionescu and Gellner). Berlin talks about the Russian Narodniks – the original nihilists. To quote him “Russian populism was less a social and economic programme before the 1880s and 1890s, as (at the beginning) a search for salvation, one of the preferred routes being a Tolstoyan demand to integrate oneself with the life of the peasants, emphasis on the debt which was owed to the peasants, and about the need to repay that debt.” This was also a feature of European anarchism, a return to the land and nature.

In the populist movement in the US headed up by William Jennings Bryan it is an attack on Washington and Wall Street – anti-finance and banking, which Bryan referred to as small indebted farmers being crucified on the cross of gold. Bryan exemplified the contradiction of being anti-government and exercising power. In his case he was co-opted as Secretary of State by that arch legalist Woodrow Wilson.

Today populism as a term still carries a pejorative tone, alluding to the irrationality, sometimes racism, and accompanying emotionalism of populist insurgency. But the so-called populism of UKIP, the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, and the new Brexit Party can be seen as rational choices by voters. Through the work of Curtice, Goodwin and others we know the sociological determinants of Brexit voters. These point to a range of concerns held by Brexit voters: over immigration, loss of distinctive identity and worries over how EU has impacted on the economy and, above all, national sovereignty. Most of these concerns can be subsumed under the term nationalism – and democracy has always been associated with nationalism. In the nineteenth century it was national self-determination and, as T.H. Marshall argued, after 1945 class conflict would be contained and played out within the framework of the nation-state, which was re-engineered to bring citizen security through the welfare state. For voters seeking to improve their economic livelihood a vote for an avowedly nationalist political party is a rational choice.

This does not take irrationality off the table, it abounds in the Brexit debates and conflicts. This subject I place under my next point about plebiscitary leadership and its demagogic characteristics. However, following the discussion on giving this paper in a seminar (Populism as a Challenge) there are issues by what is meant by rational choices. Professor Matthew Goodwin argues that the sociological determinants of Brexit voters, where he draws on the empirical research, provide us with a rational explanation of voting choices. (See Goodwin’s presentation at the Academy for Social Scientists here: <>)

In behavioural political science there is a tendency to convert reasons for action to causes of action. The methodological objection to this, raised by the famous book by Martin Hollis Models of Man, is that reasons belong to a different category and a different conceptualization of why and how we act. An empirically founded sociological determinant is more accurately described as a predictor of voter preferences. Goodwin’s sociological classes/clusters are groups experiencing above high immigration, affluent older citizens, and the left-behinds. They predominantly vote Leave the EU, but is this the actual reason they vote to leave? To answer that you would need closely studied ethnographic evidence. What is the group mind, what is the sense of fraternal solidarity, just how deep does their animus go and just what are the objects of hatred: liberals, elites, immigrants, Brussels, London …?

In the Downsian conception of politics, voter choice is a rational preference. But another conception of political rationality says otherwise. Politics cannot be reduced to the aggregation of voter preferences. It requires political rationalism, an intelligence embedded in mature political institutions and the training of political leaders. By this measure voting to leave the EU to improve your economic livelihood is not a rational choice and it exhibits a wilful refusal to consider consequences. This in turn takes us into the psychological territory of cognitive dissonance, ressentiment,  the anomie of the affluent, and other topics.

Plebiscitary democracy

The novelty – and danger – of the present situation is plebiscitary democracy. In dictionary terms a plebiscite is what the people have voted for and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the direct vote of the whole people. A referendum is a proposition that is referred back to voters. These definitions overlap and the terminology varies according to usage.

In 1929 Mussolini used a plebiscite confined to a restricted pool of Italian voters to approve a selected list of fascist candidates for the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Senate.  It was called as a general election, but the voting slip was a simple yes or no choice. Hitler used a Volksbefragung – a question referred to the people – to merge the office of Chancellor and President in 1934. And the Anschluss binding Austria to Germany in 1938 was a Volksabstimmung – a people’s vote. Prmie Minister Cameron’s referendum on leaving or remaining in the European Union was a reverse Anschluss, a vote of the people to leave. Cameron’s referendum was a kind of  plebiscite – a decision by the people. Though, this is not quite correct because it was held as an ‘advisory referendum’ and later, retrospectively, made binding by a parliamentary vote. This rendered ‘it’ a hybrid, neither fish nor fowl.

The UK’s imprecision and laxity is made possible by the absence of a constitutional rulebook. Most other democracies do have basic rules – as well as definitions – and a handbook where these rules can be looked up easily by any citizen. In Australia a referendum is a vote to change the constitution, and a plebiscite is a vote on a proposition – like gay marriage. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany forbids referendums; indeed the whole political structure of federalism and devolution of powers is tilted towards diffusing political decision-making. Other democracies like Canada, Ireland and Australia have clear rules on the holding, and rules, of referendums: on what issues referendums are permissible, the framing of the question (here in the UK it was the Electoral Commission that created the semiotic binary division of Leave and Remain), the relevant franchise, supermajorities, regional unanimity, etc.

Turning to Max Weber’s useful discussion of plebiscitary democracy, which is highly relevant to the UK situation and elsewhere, I would suggest that both the plebiscite and the referendum are a decision farmed out directly to the people, but that a plebiscite is a vote for a person or persons and a referendum is a vote for an issue.

Plebiscitary democracy is the direct election of a politician by the whole electorate, the people. The major example are US politicians at various levels who are directly elected by the people. This does not exactly apply to the President who is indirectly chosen by the electoral college in each state. But Presidents do derive legitimacy from the size of majority – or lack of it – in the popular vote. Hence Trump’s sense of insecurity.

The UK as we know is based on the election of MPs, it is an indirect democracy. A general election is a competition between parties with their respective manifestoes and each political party is headed up by a party leader. Intra-party democracy operates according to the articles of association of each political party. In formal terms the prime minister is the party leader of the party that can form a majority in the House of Commons. There is no such thing as a plebiscite for a prime minister. Or is there ?

The late Professor Stephen Haseler in conversation used to simplify the argument. The party leader is the CEO of his party and the MPs are shareholders with little influence. The general election is increasingly a decision between the leaders’ programmes. Intraparty democracy is suppressed in favour of the dominance of the leader. Large majorities are seen as an acclamation of the leader – rather than the endorsement of a party manifesto. Mrs May assumed that this was the case for her in 2017, but she and her two advisors misjudged not so much “the people” as the voting intentions of a diverse electorate.

The office of the prime minister becomes the central hub of the executive. Party conferences are reduced to a public relations exercise – meet and greet. Cabinet government – where the great ministers of state clash and represent different interests – is reduced to pre-selected agendas and approval of the decisions already made in the prime minister’s office. Obviously we have just witnessed the reversal of this process with Theresa May. But if we track back to Thatcher or Blair we are close to plebiscitary leader-democracy. Reading the biographies of both, it is notable that there is pandemonium in the office of No 10 when there is a hint of loss of power. That happened with Thatcher when challenged by Lawson around 1988 on economic policy, and the fuel drivers’ strike which threatened the legitimacy of Blair’s power in 2002 – “8 Days that Shook Britain”!

Mrs May’s loss of leader power by comparison is stunning. The plebiscitary vote focused on the leader herself failed, she lost control of her cabinet and the key asset of secrecy within collective cabinet responsibility, and she was unable – or did not attempt – to control factions within her own party. In the UK the business of government has always demanded a capable directing prime minister. This feature over recent decades has morphed effectively into plebiscitary leader-democracy, which cannot tolerate leader weakness. The underlying bias of leader-democracy is the strengthening of the prime minister’s power – this on top of the well-noted process of the centralization of governing powers in Westminster.

Charismatic and demagogic leaders

Unfortunately it is a small step from plebiscitary leader democracy to its demagogic form – in UKIP, the Brexit Party and now the Conservative Party. To give a rather prescient quote from Max Weber: “The most important transitional type [from the premodern charismatic leader] is the legitimation of authority by plebiscite: plebiscitary leadership. The most common examples are the modern party leaders.” “This accounts for a tendency to favor the type of individual who is most spectacular, who promises the most, or who employs the most effective propaganda measures in the competition for leadership”. This well describes Donald Trump and, over here in the UK, Boris Johnson. Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have just been engaged in competition to out-promise each other, in order to become party leader and so PM. And, of course, it includes Nigel Farage, master of the demagogic phrase and political stunt, and leader of a party without a constitution or a manifesto.

Weber wrote the above lines in 1919 in a section of Economy and Society (pp. 267-8) entitled “The Transformation of Charisma in a Democratic Direction” (which is a slightly loose translation but gets to the gist of his argument). Charisma for him is a pre-modern phenomenon – religious or magical in origin. It is “the quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specially exceptional powers of qualities” (ES, p. 241). Warriors, early kings, prophets are all examples. Thereafter, in the era of modern politics we have the variant form of charismatic legitimacy, the plebiscitary leader. The first  (and third) Napoleon are for Weber plebiscitary leaders who appeal to the masses, who endorse the leader through a vote. Charisma as a label is massively overused today to the extent of becoming meaningless. But the importance of the distinction lies in the basis of legitimacy. The true charismatic leader does not care a fig about his followers, they bestow on him magical powers. His following and entourage has no organising principle. The plebiscitary leader has to excite and manipulate the mass of voting citizens through demagogic arts. At one point Weber refers to Gladstone as a charismatic leader, able to appeal over the heads of his own political party in order to change the structure of politics – but the emphasis is on demagogy. “The fascinating thing about Gladstone’s ‘grand’ demagogy, the firm belief of the masses in the ethical content of his policies and above all in the ethical content of his personality …” which led to the victory of machine politics over the hold of notables and men of property. “A Caesarist plebiscitary element, the dictator of the electoral battlefield, entered the political arena” (Weber, Political Writings, p. 342).

Success in the field of modern mass politics is dependent on demagogy – and this applies to all US Presidents (where the plebiscitary vote has always been to the fore) and to Mrs Thatcher, Tony Blair, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage – or in Europe notably to Marine le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and Erdogaň in Turkey. Calling a plebiscitary leader charismatic is to do his work for him. In Weber’s view, democracy and demagogy are inseparable. Since this topic came up in the discussion of my presentation, I note that Weber instances the foundation of democracy in ancient Greece. “Since the time of the constitutional state, and definitely since democracy has been established, the ‘demagogue’ has been the typical political leader in the Occident. The distasteful flavor of the word must not make us forget that not Cleon but Pericles was the first to bear the name of demagogue” (From Max Weber, p. 96).

Professor Alan Scott in his analysis (at the GPI seminar) noted that Jörg Haider was a beneficiary of corporatist features of the Austrian political system, which has had a neutralizing and depoliticizing effect. Political leaders, like Haider or Sebastian Kurz, achieve success by injecting an affective dimension into their campaigns, by offering an emotional buzz for the voter. These messages are most easily framed around an inward-looking nationalism and a range of related prejudices – xenophobia, ethnic purity.

By this analysis all successful leaders are demagogues and the tendency to plebiscitary leadership is inherent in democracy. As a good German Weber believed in law and order, the Rechtsstaat, and the constitutional (federal) state. So in America, power is divided between Congress, the Judiciary and the President. In western Europe party leaders operate within a system of representative democracy. The present danger in democracies today is that plebiscitary leaders are attempting to free themselves of constitutional checks. With the dismissal of the German Chancellor (Bethmann Hollweg) in 1917 Weber realised Germany had toppled over into a military dictatorship and he mounted a passionate defence of representative democracy (in the pages of the Frankfurter Zeitung).  “In a mass state the specific instrument of purely plebiscitary democracy, namely direct popular elections and referenda, and above all the referendum on removal from office, are completely unsuited to the task of selecting specialist officials or of criticising their performance” (Weber. Political Writings, p. 226). Referendums can only deal with simple yes/no decisions. In a complex society, differentiated socially and economically, only parliaments and political parties can agree the necessary compromises required in respect to matters of trade policy or taxation and expenditure.

Plebiscitary leaders appeal to the people, and seek to derive authority from “the will of the people”. In the context of syndicalist direct democracy, Weber angrily denounced “the will of the people” as a fiction (Letter to Roberto Michels, 1908). This brings us back to populism. Appeals to the will of the people has rhetorical traction, as Rousseau, Robespierre, Lenin, Mussolini – and now most of the present Conservative Party – have discovered and exploited. It’s a powerful appeal. But this is an interpretation by the leader of what he or she thinks the people have willed. In the jargon, “the will of the people” is an empty signifier giving the plebiscitary leader a large amount of arbitrary discretion. In the case of EU Referendum, Leavers belonging to different groups wanted different things, yet both Johnson and Farage have interpreted that will as a “no-deal” Brexit, a demagogic tactic that has propelled Johnson to the premiership, and Farage up the current opinion polls.


Where representative and direct democracy clash we have a crisis of legitimacy. Legitimacy is the belief held by citizens in the authority of the political leader. Not only is it extremely important for a leader to have this and hold on to it, but it configures the organization of politics. In this sense representative democracy and plebiscitary democracy are on an equal footing. You either believe in Parliament with MPs belonging to party political programmes (not quite the same as Burkean conscience), or you believe in the leader qua leader.  In this analysis democracy becomes a selection between types of belief – and legitimacy then structures the organization of power and its deployment.

An unconstrained plebiscitary principle will lead to authoritarianism and, as we know, dictatorship. A possible typology would cover a spectrum: 1) plebiscitary leaders within a structure of representative democracy with a professional/expert bureaucracy, 2) authoritarian or Caesarist leadership with a mandated political organization and a politicised bureaucracy, 3) plebiscitary dictatorship where both politics and bureaucracy are suborned to the leader.

New Labour was a mild example of (1) where its particular legitimacy and ideology – “things can only get better” – somewhat compromised the carrying out of policies where it was not as effective and efficient as it might have been. President Trump occupies point (2) on the spectrum with an administration kept in a state of confusion by the president’s leadership style. Trump is experimenting with a variant on (2) – not only by appointing true believers, family members etc – but leaving posts unfilled. The “administration” unplugs the bureaucracy forcing attention onto the leader and his  utterances. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk has described this new pattern, which could be termed “deliberate incompetence.”

A  “Caesarist” Johnson premiership can only deliver complex solutions by adhering rather than overriding a specialist civil service. But his Cabinet is likely to be filled by only true believers, leading diplomatic posts likewise –  a tendency that could spread through the civil service. Whether this would become the “new normal” for a Conservative government remains to be seen.


About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.