LONDON — To hear some British politicians tell it, they are mere servants. They can only execute popular will, whatever the cost to the country or themselves. To do otherwise would be to betray democracy itself.
“The will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered,” Prime Minister David Cameron said after voters narrowly approved leaving the European Union in a 2016 referendum, though this meant both his resignation and, in his telling, devastation to the British economy.
Yet lawmakers also believe they must determine for themselves how to serve Britain’s best interests. Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr. Cameron’s successor, justified her plan for withdrawal, or Brexit, as the best way forward, even if it was not the most popular.
Voters seem to share these dual expectations. The British government, many believe, should first and foremost safeguard the national good, including from the whims of public opinion, which has flipped several times since the initial vote. But it must also respect public opinion, as captured in that nearly three-year-old vote, above all else.
That contradiction “is as old as liberal democracy itself,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist. But it is growing sharper and more destabilizing, he said, and not just in Britain.
Around the world, rising populists and angry electorates are putting pressure, sometimes deliberately, on what Mr. Levitsky called democracy’s “two conflicting imperatives: majority rule and liberalism.”
In Western countries, white majorities are challenging rights long promised to minority groups and outsiders. Populist leaders, including President Trump, are clashing with institutions that they say oppose popular will. Political establishments weaken every year.
The result is a widening divide between two visions of democracy. There is the ideal of rule by the people. And there is the more complicated reality, in which institutions and representatives balance majority opinion against considerations like universal rights and the common good.
Unable to reconcile those contradictory demands, once solid-seeming democracies are breaking down. Faith in a system that makes two contradictory promises is declining. The resulting chaos, far from elevating one vision of democracy over the other, could weaken both.
The Democratic Ideal, and the Reality
Democracy may have begun as the idea that authority comes from the people, but there was always more to it.
As its modern form first took hold, philosophers and revolutionaries debated how to balance several lofty ambitions, of which popular rule was just one. And they fretted over how to make their new system last.
They concluded that democracy could never work as “simply the rule of public opinion,” said Nadia Urbinati, a Columbia University scholar of democracy. It would need “rules and procedures” to guard against factionalism, an abusive majority or a power-hungry leader.
They converged on a system in which “elections are just one leg,” alongside a second leg of rules, rights and institutions, she said. “Without that, we don’t call it a democracy.”
Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish philosopher, argued that an elected leader’s duty required both listening to constituents and putting his or her “mature judgment” ahead of their whims.
During debates over the American Constitution, James Madison warned in one of the essays that became the Federalist Papers, that unbridled majoritarianism had made earlier democracies “as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Only “a republic” of representatives subject to rules and institutions as well as the public, he wrote, “promises the cure for which we are seeking.”
Such treatises formed the basis of today’s democracies, in which the people’s will is carefully incorporated but rarely intended to dominate.
But that is not quite how this new system won the consent of everyday citizens.
The first democracies built their legitimacy on that of monarchies, then common, with a few proper nouns swapped around. “Instead of having one king, you have a collective king, the people,” Ms. Urbinati said.
That vision of democracy as rule by the people persists, still heard in classrooms and in campaign rallies, where citizens are told that their authority is paramount.
It has set up voters for shock and outrage when they discover, time and again, that they are not as powerful as they’d thought. The checks imposed on popular will can feel like democracy failing — though it’s actually the system working as intended — provoking angry backlashes.
Brexit’s Democracy Problem
Brexit, is a near perfect encapsulation of this contradiction.
Mr. Cameron and others sold the 2016 referendum as handing power to the people (never mind that the prime minister, confident that the measure would never pass, was really just looking for a political fig leaf). But it has left Britons more politically disaffected than at any point in years.
Members of the 48 percent who voted to remain in the European Union have asked why a slim majority should dictate the nation’s fate. Lately, with the polls having turned against Brexit, it can feel like raw majoritarian rule by a majority that no longer exists.
Meanwhile, Britons who voted to leave have watched lawmakers fight over widely divergent plans, none of which enjoys majority popular support. There is speculation about a second referendum that might overturn the first, feeding suspicion that the establishment never intended to follow the people’s will.
Referendums can end up feeling less democratic than promised in part, political scientists argue, because they are not actually all that democratic.
They tend to be volatile, turning on unrelated political events or even the weather, which is thought to have influenced Colombia’s 2016 referendum on a peace deal with insurgents. They are notoriously poor at reflecting public opinion, particularly on a complex issue like Brexit. And they force majoritarian rule onto a political system that is designed to resist it, setting up voters and leaders for collision.
But even if democracies are not designed for direct popular rule, democracy is often idealized as being exactly that, making it nearly impossible for British leaders to justify ignoring the 2016 vote. Even many who wish to do so are arguing for holding a second referendum, repeating the same risks as in the first.
Challenges to liberal democracy’s checks on popular input are growing globally.
In France, protesters known as the Yellow Vests, not content to defer national policy to Emmanuel Macron, the centrist president, have demanded that the country hold regular referendums on new legislation.
The Alternative for Germany, a far-right party, has also pushed for referendums, including on whether to leave the European Union. Though the party is unlikely to get its wish, merely asking allows it to portray itself as a champion of popular will against an unresponsive establishment.
Some elected leaders are governing as if by never-ending referendum, pushing for raw popular will to carry the day.
In the United States, failing so far to get his border wall, President Trump — as populist leaders often do when institutions stand in their way — has portrayed Congress as opposing the will of the people. Then he allowed the federal government to be partially shut down.
Other populists have taken things further. The ruling party of Poland, after portraying the judiciary as an obstacle to popular will, briefly tried to purge the Supreme Court. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte told the police that they could keep citizens safe only by favoring him over the rule of law.
Such crises are growing more common, Mr. Levitsky argues, because of a shift within democracies.
Leaders have always needed the support of both voters and establishments to win elections. Voters wanted popular rule, establishments wanted checks and institutions; the two held each other in balance.
But in recent years a series of changes, including the rise of social media and online fund-raising, have severely weakened establishments’ power.
“Now, politicians are learning that they need to be much more responsive to voters than to the establishment,” Mr. Levitsky said.
Marginal figures like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, a longtime lawmaker and now the president, can win by promising to empower popular will over the establishment. That doesn’t have to mean abolishing democratic checks, but it makes doing so far easier.
That can be taken to extremes. A new generation of elected strongmen has risen by exploiting the gap between popular expectations of democracy and its reality.
Institutions and rules really do limit the public’s role. Though they are meant to protect universal rights and the common good, they can be portrayed by populists as an elite conspiracy to subvert the people.
The only way to save democracy, the populists argue, is for a strong leader to smash those institutions and rule directly on the people’s behalf.
This can initially feel liberating to that leader’s supporters. But, as Mr. Madison warned in the Federalist Papers, a democracy imposed “by the superior force” of an “overbearing majority” may not always remain democratic.
And sooner or later, with the establishment taken care of, strongmen tend to start going after the people themselves.