What is the difference between a populist government and a democratic government? Populism is a political doctrine that proposes “that the common people are exploited by a privileged elite, and which seeks to resolve this”. The underlying ideology of populists can be left, right, or centre but what is common to all populist leaders is the identification of this ‘common enemy’ against which the people are divided. While this sounds like an enterprise entirely consistent with a democratic purpose it quickly leads to the opposite result. The identified elite rapidly become a scapegoated minority, as with the Jews in Nazi Germany. Modern populism has a further more sinister dimension, because it tends to scapegoat minorities whether they are an elite or not, like Muslims in Trump’s America. The distinctive characteristic of populist ideology remains division of one part of a population against another, smaller part – and generally the easiest target will do.
A democracy is quite different, at least in intent. It is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” Although some forms of democracy do produce divisive politics – as in the UK – the purpose of a democracy is to create a government that represents and reconciles the opinions of a whole population.
So why is a single issue plebiscite undemocratic? Simply because plebiscites are designed to divide opinion. For this reason they are readily adapted as populist tools. They are designed to set two sides against each other in order to create a simple minority/majority. They are a powerful weapon for populists because they designate losers as a minority to be ignored and often held in contempt, and of course the result of a plebiscite can be used as a powerful argument against compromise and reconciliation and an expression of ‘popular will’. Their divisive nature tends to polarise debate and destroy consensus, so that where democracy thrives on common assent and negotiation plebiscites are designed to carry the will of a single faction. A plebiscite is in this sense the opposite of a democratic vote