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Two Arguments for Direct Democracy: Trump and Corbyn

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The ascendancy of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, the dark-horse candidates creating turmoil in party leadership contests on either side of the Atlantic, speaks to what's wrong with modern democracy: a disillusionment among voters that neither victory nor defeat for these two men could fix. What might help, though, is more Swiss-style direct democracy.

First, about Trump and Corbyn, one an arch-capitalist, the other an old-school socialist. The growing literature on why these two men are practically twins -- despite their very different views -- has arrived at three main conclusions:

1. They advocate simple solutions in a complex world. Here's Philip Stephens writing in the Financial Times: "Strip out the policy specifics and they carry the same core message to the disenchanted and disgruntled: we can stop the world and get off."

2. They are real on a human level and genuinely stand for something -- unlike the gray mass of waffling, insincere mainstream politicians who oppose them. Here's Peter Jones in The Scotsman: "Of course, Mr. Corbyn's politics are the absolute antithesis of Mr. Trump's. But he advocates his beliefs and principles with the same passion and sincerity and seems to be speaking for a section of the electorate which is angry about the burdens recession has imposed on them."

3. Corbyn and Trump challenge an inherently undemocratic, managerial establishment only able to produce half-measures, which voters don't like or even understand. "We certainly must take seriously what they say about themselves: that they are attracted to the sense of higher purpose, of a position that is not simply managerial centrism," Janet Daley wrote in The Telegraph. "The business of governing has become obscure and arcane, as well as uninspiring."

Based on these conclusions, Corbyn and Trump will not satisfy their supporters' needs, even if Corbyn becomes leader of Britain's Labour Party or -- much less likely -- Trump becomes the U.S. Republican Party presidential candidate. Led by Corbyn, Labour would keep losing elections, because the U.K. is too prosperous to embrace his deep-red brand of socialism. And even if Labour did end up in government with Corbyn as Prime Minister, the party would suffer the fate of Greece's imploding Syriza: Protesters take too long to get wise to the demands and restrictions of governing, and some decide they like protesting better.

Trump, meanwhile, won't become president because he alienates whole swathes of the American people. Most Hispanics don't care about his sincerity: He's their sincere enemy. Nor do most women: He's a sincere sexist. And even if he did become president, his radical plans -- from the wall on the Mexican border to an abortion ban -- would not be feasible because of the U.S. system of checks and balances.

At the same time, the defeats of Corbyn or Trump by more mainstream candidates, at whatever stage of the electoral process, would also resolve nothing. Supporters of the two political outsiders would see this as yet another win for the system they were protesting against.

Any solution to the problem that Trump and Corbyn embody -- the disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters, who mistrust centrist politicians and struggle to understand their agendas -- will require a fundamental reform of the democratic process, probably along the lines of Switzerland's semi-direct democracy. The same applies for France, Spain, Greece, Austria, Hungary and the Nordic countries, all of which have seen rising support for populist politicians.

Switzerland has regular parliamentary elections. Unlike most democracies, however, it doesn't have a single leader. Instead, the country has a seven-member executive committee, with the ceremonial presidency rotating between them annually. Moreover, any law can be overturned or established by a referendum, which is remarkably easy to call: All it takes is support from 50,000 people -- 0.6 percent of the population. (Changes to constitutional laws require double the number of supporters).

Switzerland is still run by a gray, technocratic establishment, but these politicians don't seriously pretend to be anything else, because Swiss voters aren't picking a charismatic leader to represent them and embody their aspirations. All they do is choose between mostly moderate agendas. That's less upsetting, because they can always correct the technocrats by voting to overrule them.

Extrapolating Swiss rules to the U.S., it would take 1.9 million people to initiate a nationwide referendum. There would almost certainly be enough support for a vote on the border wall, abortion restrictions or Obamacare. Swiss people have voted on similar matters in the last couple of years. In February 2014, they rejected an initiative that would have dropped abortion from public health insurance plans, but backed a proposal demanding that the government should renegotiate or repeal a free migration agreement with the European Union. In September 2014, they killed a proposal to set up a unified health insurance fund, and in November of that year they rejected an immigration cap of 0.2 percent of the population per year. 

The votes on immigration are particularly interesting: The voters proved to be more anti-immigrant than the government, but less xenophobic than the activists who called for the cap. There's nothing special about the Swiss; they are no smarter than Americans or people in any other country, but they generally make well-thought-out, moderate decisions and reject extremism of any kind. In general, only 7 percent of all laws proposed by the Swiss parliament are challenged in popular votes, and only half of these challenges are successful. They occur when it matters and people don't feel adequately represented by their politicians.

As Switzerland's experience shows, the strong role of direct democracy in the political system doesn't have to lead to anarchy or the suppression of minority views. Nor would it be unduly expensive. Modern technology allows extremely cheap electronic voting. In Estonia, 30 percent of citizens cast ballots on the Internet. Countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. are home to companies revolutionizing the way we communicate, get information, shop and listen to music -- so why not the way we vote?

Politicians like Corbyn and Trump could easily try out their ideas in a direct democracy system, and could keep trying for as long as they were able to find the money to campaign. Their supporters wouldn't be left out of the debate (as is likely to be the case when these men lose their bids for power). They could even win some ground once populist proposals were moderated enough to gain traction, which is what usually happens in Switzerland.

This may sound like another simplistic solution to a complex problem: After all, Switzerland is a rich and unusual country whose experience may be impossible to replicate elsewhere. But cut-and-pasting wouldn't be required: Every country could work out its own rules for bringing angry, voiceless people back into the political process. That, in effect, is what both Trump and Corbyn are campaigning for, whatever other slogans they throw out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net