Did you know the Swiss lost direct democracy once?

The Swiss had to fight to get direct democracy, and when they lost it they had to fight again to get it back.

There is something special the Swiss did to get to where they are today; the most democratic and developed country in the whole World. Switzerland was not always so.

It helped the Swiss their tradition in towns and villages to decide by a show of hands. They do that since the Middle Ages. But deciding by a show of hands in the town’s square is not unique to Switzerland. For example, in the early American colonies of New England the people made decisions the same way.

Keep also in mind another fact about Switzerland; far from the extraordinary country it is today, in 1848 the Swiss had a civil war. And it was not an “ordinary” civil war. In the Swiss war, Catholics fought against Protestants, ugly stuff. Notice this is almost 100 years after the American War of Independence! Not a model of stability.

Switzerland’s civil war was very far from the current consensus politics the Swiss now practice like nobody else.

Such evolution shows you countries can grow. Sometimes countries “grow” backwards too.

The 1848 Civil War did not give Swiss voters the right to have the final say on laws and the constitution. They have such right now because they worked to get it, nobody gave it to them.

In Switzerland they did not have referendums until 1874. Let us remember also; referendums in Switzerland take place when the people decide or the laws prescribes, not when the government wants to. Referendums allow the citizens to reject laws approved by their elected representatives.

The right Swiss citizens have to change the constitution came even later, in 1891.

You may not know the Swiss people lost direct democracy during WW II, but they did, and almost forever, and not because of Hitler.

They lost direct democracy because of the war. The Swiss government was granted special powers. After the War was over, neither the government nor the parliamentarians wanted to go back to direct democracy. I suppose they enjoyed the power, or perhaps I am being too cynical.

To get direct democracy back, the Swiss people had to protest and protest. The citizens launched a movement in 1946; “Return to direct democracy”. 3 years later they were able to have a referendum. They voted, and it passed, but just by a 0.7% margin! This means direct democracy almost went back into oblivion. That is where it was for millennia since the collapse of Greek direct democracy.

Fighting for direct democracy is to be expected. For example, in a recent post I wrote about the people of Taiwan and how they had to organize demonstrations to bring direct democracy into their country.

Often happens that elected representatives are not interested in direct democracy. It could be because they lose power, or it could be because they believe representative democracy is better.

Politicians and others may say “direct democracy does not work because…”, “Switzerland is too different from us”, and other reasons we listed in a previous post.

We know ordinary citizens are interested in direct democracy. We know this because many surveys show it.

Although the people of Switzerland can stop any local, cantonal or national law that the politicians have approved, 90% the laws passed by Swiss parliaments are not challenged by citizens in referendums.

I believe that is because the Swiss governments and parliamentarians are attuned to what voters want, precisely because of the “threat” of a referendum.

To wrap it up; Switzerland practices direct democracy because they fought and continue to fight for it. It is not because some special factor has made Switzerland innately predisposed towards direct democracy.

Everyone has to start at the beginning. Perhaps you can attend meetings at the local municipality and learn first hand how the current system works, start a local direct democracy group, etc.

“Words are not facts”; in direct democracy, like in everything else. 

It is easy to write into any Constitution impressive words. The challenge is turning them into laws that work.

Direct democracy is just one case of “words are not facts”.

If the constitution of your country contains beautiful statements about direct democracy, it is good, but not enough. Do not be satisfied.

Do not be satisfied either if the elected representatives pass a law about referendums.

I say this because in Taiwan they went through the process of “words are not facts”. They succeeded because they complained a lot and they complained intelligently. 

Because Taiwan’s constitution mentions popular referendums and the Taiwanese legislature also passed in 2003 the Referendum Act, there should be lots of referendums in Taiwan. Unfortunately no referendum took place because the following factors made it difficult to transition from words to facts:

Organizers had to persuade 0.5% of the eligible voters of Taiwan to sign the proposal for the referendum.

Because in Taiwan there are 18 million voters, organizers needed to collect 90 000 signatures. It was not an unreasonable figure. The problem was that this was just to present the proposal to the Referendum Review Commission.

The Referendum Review Commission was run by politicians. This gave the governing party the power to kill referendums in the bud. If the Commission said “no”, that was it, no referendum took place.

But even if the Commission said yes, the people needed to do a lot more work. They needed to collect signatures from 5% of registered voters. 5% of the voters of Taiwan means 900 000 signatures.

The law also required the government to apply the results of the referendum only if 50% of the voters took part in the referendum.

The people did not like this situation. They demonstrated over and over. They did it over nuclear energy (I referred to it in the previous post). The pressure forced the politicians to change the referendum law.

In 2017 they changed it. Now only 0.01% of the electorate needs to sign the proposal, just 1800 eligible voters.

The law also dropped the rule to sign up 5% (900 000) eligible voters to carry out the referendum. The new requirement was reduced to 1.5%. This means that instead of 900 000 eligible voters, only 270 000 needed to sign.

The need to have 50% voter participation was also dropped. Now only 25% voter participation is enough.

They disbanded the Referendum Review Commission. Referendum proposals are now presented to the Central Election Commission. Politicians have no longer the power to accept or reject proposals.

This is why Taiwan now has referendums. A “few” years had to pass to go from words to facts, but the Taiwanese did it!

A limitation in Taiwan’s law is that referendums can be held only every two years. This is one important difference with Switzerland.

The Swiss vote in referendums and initiatives 4 times per year. It is a lot of voting. I believe this is why Swiss voters have more control over politicians.

Frequent voting requires being informed,  but it beats being spectators, or getting angry at politicians because of what they decide, doesn’t it?

Do not worry about “voter fatigue”; over the course of year, 80% of the Swiss vote in referendums.

People do not get tired of voting if they know they count. It is like looking after the common house. People do not get tired of maintaining their houses because they own them. Frequent referendums on what is important for voters convey ownership of what happens to your country.

I welcome your positive or critical comments. Thank you

Victor

 

Oh, no! direct democracy, “Made in China” too?

In the last blog I wrote about the canton of Zurich, Switzerland. We showed how the people of Zurich have the power to decide on so many issues. Today we travel 9 000 km Eastbound from Zurich.

“Made in China” direct democracy? I am serious. The people of Taiwan have decided; “Confucius can be a direct democrat too!”

We know some “dismiss” Switzerland’s direct democracy. They say things like “they are very different”, “they are a small country”, blah, blah. What will they say when you tell them: how about Taiwan’s direct democracy?

If the people of Taiwan, who differ greatly from the Swiss, can decide directly on many things via referendums, why can’t you?

For example, in 2018 the people of Taiwan decided by referendum the following questions:

      1. Do you agree “To reduce by 1% year by year” the electricity production of thermal power plants?”
      2. Do you agree to the establishment of an energy policy to “Stop construction and expansion of any coal-fired thermal power plants or generator units?
      3. Do you agree that the government should maintain the prohibition of agricultural imports and food from areas affected by the Fukushima March 11, disaster?
      4. Specifically, those from Fukushima proper and the 4 surrounding districts and cities of Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, and Chiba?
      5. Do you agree that marriage defined in the Civil Code should be restricted to the union between one man and one woman?
      6. Do you agree that the Ministry of Education should not implement the Enforcement Rules of the Gender Equality Education Act in elementary and middle schools?
      7. Do you agree to the protection of the rights of same-sex couples in co-habitation on a permanent basis in ways other than changing of the Civil Code?
      8. Do you agree to the use of “Taiwan” (instead of Republic of China) when participating in all international sport competitions, including the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
      9. Do you agree to the protection of same-sex marital rights with marriage as defined in the Civil Code?
      10. Do you agree in accordance with the Gender Equality Education Act that national education of all levels should educate students on the importance of gender equality, emotional education, sex education, and same-sex education?
      11. Do you agree to repeal Article 95 Paragraph 1 of the Electricity Act: “Should Nuclear-energy-based power generating facilities shall stop running by 2025”?

Why can’t you and your fellow citizens? What is the matter?

Who knows? in a few years, the Taiwanese, or perhaps your country, may surpass Switzerland’s direct democracy.

The people of Taiwan are amazing. They decided to become a democracy in the early 1990s. Then in 2003 they pressed for direct democracy. In 23 years from dictatorship to direct democracy. They are the Usain Bolt of speedy political change, and without firing a shot.

They did it because they became tired of politicians passing unpopular laws and making unpopular decisions… and hoping voters would forget by the next election.

One day they said, enough! when the party in government went back on its word not to build more nuclear power stations.

Thousands of citizens demonstrated against the betrayal.

During one of the protests the demonstrators projected the word 全民公决!(Referendum!) on the wall of the presidential building.

The pressure forced the government to accept the power of the people to directly decide, not just to elect representatives.

The Constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) states: “the people shall have the right of election, recall, initiative and referendum and that the exercise of the rights of initiative and referendum shall be prescribed by law”.

So, perhaps your country also has provisions for direct democracy in its constitution, or in its oral or written traditions. But even if it does not, the people of Taiwan have shown you how you it can be done.

There is lots of information in the Web about the events that triggered Taiwan’s change.

In some ways, Taiwan is a more relevant role model for most of the people of the World than Switzerland. The reason is obvious, few are close to Switzerland’s tradition of democracy.

Taiwan shows that any country can become a direct democracy, IF it has the will AND the skills to make it work.

What will be the “enough!” factor in your country, city, town, village or region, to push for direct democracy?

Your comments are very important. The critical ones are even more important! Thanks.

Victor

 

Why voters in the Swiss canton of Zurich, population of 1.5 million, can do all this, but you can’t?

I use Zurich as an example. Other Swiss cantons function in similar ways but they all differ because each canton, even each municipality, can do its own thing; political diversity at work.

Here are the powers of the people:

  1. The power to launch initiatives.

Citizens of the Canton of Zurich can launch an initiative at any time. Just with the signature of 6000 voters, the initiative gets going.

Initiatives can deal with the total or partial modification of the constitution of the Canton of Zurich. They can also deal with decisions and laws passed by the parliament of the Canton and also with international or inter-canton agreements.

Some initiatives may be very detailed, others are more general

Initiatives at the cantonal level must deal only with one subject. They can not be contrary to national laws either.

Voting on an initiative must take place within 18 or 30 months.

The Parliament of Zurich can present a counterproposal to a citizen’s initiative. In this way the voters can vote for an alternative proposal. Would be nice if the same thing could be done wherever you are.

Initiatives deal only with the constitution. For other issues, they have mandatory referendums and voluntary referendums.

  1. The mandatory referendums which the government must carry out, by law.

Mandatory referendums happen automatically, no need to collect signatures.

A referendum is necessary if the government wants to change the constitution of the Canton of Zurich. The people must approve. The government has no option.

A mandatory referendum is also necessary if any agreement between the Canton and other jurisdictions touches upon the constitution of the Canton.

It is also interesting to note that if the people have presented a detailed initiative but the parliament of the canton rejects it, then the initiative becomes a mandatory referendum. This is actual people power; “you (the politicians) don’t like what we propose?, then everyone must vote, you can not shelve it”

Also have to go to a mandatory referendum any changes to Zurich cantonal tax laws that increase taxes or add a new tax. Wouldn’t that be nice too if you could do that?

  1. The power of the people-initiated, optional or voluntary referendum.

This is optional in the sense that the people call these referendums. They are not optional for the government.

Changing or repealing any law of the Canton of Zurich can be done using the voluntary referendum mechanism.

The people can also force a referendum for any expense over 6 million Swiss Francs, about 6 million US Dollars. If an expense happens every year and is of over 600 000 UD Dollars the citizens can also force a referendum.

Voluntary referendums need the support of 3000 voters (the population of the Canton of 1.5 million). It should not be difficult to get 3000 to back something that concerns many.

A referendum can also be triggered if requested by 12 municipalities of the Canton of Zurich (there are 162 municipalities in the Canton), the city of Zurich, the city of Winterthur (because they are relatively large big), or 45 members of the cantonal parliament (the Parliament of Zurich has 180 elected representatives).

How do they handle urgent issues?

Referendums take time, although new technologies can radically speed up the process. You might be wondering, how do the people of the Canton of Zurich, or Switzerland in general, manage if they need a new law urgently?  For example in the case of the Wuhan virus.

What they do is parliament passes the law but the people may call a referendum, as long as they do not wait more than 6 months since the law was passed.

Examples of what the people control.

There are examples at the canton level, but also at the municipal and national level. The philosophy of direct democracy covers all levels of legislation but each jurisdiction is free to do things their way.

At the canton level the people decide on taxes at all levels, business opening hours, if kindergarten should be mandatory, construction of a new school or university building, and many issues related to cantonal legislation.

At the municipal level people decide things like the building of a new public swimming pool, what will be the authority of the local police, covering a station, and most issues related to local legislation.

At the national level voters decide on things like gay marriage, treatment of animals, gun control, minimum wage, universal income, mandatory army service, whether Swiss laws should prevail over international law, and most issues related to national legislation.

The Swiss people do not decide everything but they decide on most anything they want to decide. You should be able to do the same or even better.

Your critical and positive comments are necessary!

Thank you!

 

Participatory Democracy and Deliberative Democracy fall short of Direct Democracy

Representative democracy is feeling the pressure; too many citizens do not feel well represented.

This situation has stimulated thinkers to suggest “refinements” to representative democracy.

One of them is “Participatory democracy”; the other is “Deliberative democracy”. Both can work with first past the post and with proportional representation.

“Participatory democracy” seeks citizen input to develop laws, pass budgets and major projects. The idea is: citizen input will influence policy making.

Such influence will improve the quality decisions and also their acceptability. Another benefit is more legitimacy to politicians and institutions.

Unfortunately, participatory democracy does not give more power to the people. It gives more voice, but not more power. Voice is not power, power is power.

“Participatory democracy” is an improvement, but not the improvement we need because the people still do not decide.

Another idea to improve representative democracy is “Deliberative democracy”.

Like “Participatory democracy”, it can work with first past the post and with proportional representation.

The idea is to involve many citizens before passing new laws or making major decisions.

But managing large numbers of people is difficult.

To fix this, some propose to select a representative sample of citizens,

But the problem persists; the people still can not stop laws or propose laws, approve budgets or projects.

In short, participatory democracy and deliberative democracy will improve representative democracy, but fall short of direct democracy.

For you to decide you need direct democracy.

But for direct democracy to work, most citizens must have the common sense and the values direct democracy needs.

Those criteria are essential, but they are not enough. 

Other important considerations are:

Requesting a referendum must not require too many citizens requesting the referendum.

The Swiss experience shows 1-2% of the population works well. Perhaps it can be lower if Internet makes it much easier to hold referendums.

That the people should be able to change the referendum requirements is also important. 

Even better than the people petitioning, is the mandatory referendum. In the mandatory referendum the government must hold the referendum because the law says so; no need for the citizens to lift a finger.

In such system all laws and major decisions must be decided by referendum, no need for petitions.

In referendums it should not matter how many people turn out to vote. As long all potential voters have had sufficient time and information.

Low voter turn out can be because people are not interested in the issue. For example, they may not be interested in the law controlling speed in highways, or building a new sports centre, or providing free drugs to addicts, etc.

When this happens, it is not a problem if a minority of voters decides.

It is critical that the decision by the people be obeyed by the government. I know, it is basic, but it happens that if a government does not like the decision of the people, sometimes they resort to stalling, manipulation, etc.

No need to say that consultative referendums have nothing to do with direct democracy. If the people do not decide, it is not direct democracy. It is not direct democracy either if the government decides on what issues to hold referendums, even if the result is mandatory.

Direct democracy is not about consulting the people; it is about the people deciding. This is a real, down to earth, revolution and the future for everybody,  starting with stable representative democracies to show the way.

Your comments, pro AND against are welcomed.

Cheers!

 

Do not kid yourself; proportional representation will not give you the power you need.

In fact, many countries have proportional representation. I do not doubt many people in those countries feel they are better represented than in first past the post systems.

Unfortunately, when it comes to decision making, the voters in those countries feel ignored by the executives and the legislators in towns, cities, regions and at the national level.

More and more people are fighting for proportional representation, you may have noticed it. They argue it is a fairer system than first past the post (winner takes all). But even if it is better, proportional representation does not address the key issue.

The key issue is lack of people’s power. One symptom is that too many voters do not trust their politicians.

Proportional representation is not the remedy to close the trust gap. It can not be because it is about better representation, not about power.

The mistrust happens because the people do not have power. If the people have power, the politicians cannot do things that the people do not support. This would end the mistrust.

I also think  “first past the post” vs. “proportional representation” distracts from the real issue of power.

Many honestly believe proportional representation is the answer representative democracies need. I do not think it can be..

Others promote proportional representation to distract people from the actual problem of lack of citizen power. Here it is not about such people being wrong, it is about something less defensible.

I have no quarrel with first past the post or with proportional representation. I see no point in getting involved in a discussion which does not tackle the genuine problem.

If you want to learn more about first past the post and proportional representation, all you have to do is enter those terms in your computer or phone.

But let me bring a little of Switzerland into the conversation once more. Let us look at some facts.

Decades ago, Switzerland also had a first past the post system. At some point it switched. Now it has proportional representation. First past the post persists, but on a small scale.

The switch from first past the post to proportional representation was an important change for the Swiss. More important though, was the switch introducing referendums for almost anything. This meant the people had the final say on many issues; taxes, roads, education, etc.

Most Swiss agree that what gives Swiss citizens power is the mandatory referendum.

They have another referendum, one that the people themselves call if enough of them demand it. They call it “voluntary referendum”. This is also helpful. Helpful too are the popular initiatives.

All these tools give Swiss people proper control over how their cities, towns, cantons, and the entire country, run.

For the Swiss it is no longer only about, who to vote for? But about, do we approve this budget, this road, this tax, this fee, etc.?

Direct democracy turns around the usual situation in representative democracy. In representative democracy the elected representatives can “override”, or ignore,  the will of the voters. In direct democracy, the people can override decisions made by their elected representatives.

Because the people have power, the politicians no longer do “whatever they want” between elections.

In view of this, it is easy to understand why many representative politicians are not keen on direct democracy. The reason is obvious, for them it means less power.

Yes, Swiss politicians have a lot less power than politicians in representative democracies. But I suspect they have come to see how that is better for their towns, cities, regions and country, and for themselves and their children too.

No Swiss politician would be foolish enough to try to do away with direct democracy. I am sure this does not surprise you.

But we must not be too rigid about direct democracy. It is unusual, but it is possible; a stable representative democracy can achieve several of the benefits of direct democracy.

This can happen when the political culture of a society has “taught” those in government to listen to the citizens.

Unfortunately, that is rare. It happens in some Northern European countries, such as Denmark.

Denmark is a representative democracy but they also have referendums for particular situations.

But not even Denmark comes close to Switzerland in citizen power. The Swiss have far more say on how their towns, cities and country run than the Danes.

Switzerland is also the democracy with the highest trust in government. It may have something to do with the control that citizens have of government. In Switzerland, governments do not stray far from citizen sentiment.

This blog is about adopting direct democracy to improve stable representative democracies. It does not matter if they use first past the post or proportional representation.

If a democracy is not stable, it can not make direct democracy work. There are too many frictions, too many ill feelings, too much mistrust. If it is not a democracy… then forget about bringing in direct democracy.

The blog is not to promote direct democracy as the “grand solution”. We must be practical, there are no “grand solutions”, for anything.

But you can take small steps anywhere. Even if your country is a dictatorship, it may be possible to gradually bring in direct democracy at the local level. In time it may spread to the whole country.

If the society you live in is a stable democracy, it is easier to introduce direct democracy. But that will only happen if you spread the word about its benefits.

Fortunately, many citizens are receptive to direct democracy now. They understand it as the best way to fix serious problems in representative democracy.

There is growing interest around the World in direct democracy. Practically in each country that is relatively free there is an organization promoting direct democracy. You may have one in your country, or you can start it.

Your comments positive or critical are always useful.

Cheers!

Victor

You don´t like how your local, regional or national government spends your money? You have the soul of direct democrats!

A scientific study shows that when voters decide how public money is spent, governments spend less and better.

It sounds too good to many.

Some will say: “are you kidding? If voters have control over money we will go broke in no time”, “the people will go for flashy projects, they will support all sorts of “prestige” projects that will ruin us!

It is possible that when voters are not used to decide, they are not used to being responsible either. Because of that  they may vote for ruinous projects. But soon they will learn. Once they learn, they will not overspend again.

Yes, us, the people, may spend more than than we should, until we learn. But it is a fact most politicians do that already. Not much to lose by trying a new way to spend; let the people decide, it is their money. It is not the politician’s money.

Direct control of public expenses by the people is one of the important tools of direct democracy. But just like one tool does not make a shop, other changes are necessary.

Let us go back to the study. Researchers in California and in Switzerland carried it out. At the end of this post you have the link.

The scientists studied the 26 Swiss Cantons. Swiss cantons are similar in some ways to the states in the US or Australia, Canadian provinces, German Länders, Spanish autonomous regions, etc.

The Swiss cantons are very autonomous. Because of that, the tools of direct democracy are not the same in all cantons.

In some cantons, by law, a referendum must take place if a project exceeds a fixed dollar limit. In other cantons, they hold referendums only if enough people demand it.

If the trigger for a referendum is the cost of a project, Swiss politicians could cheat by dividing a large project into several small ones.

I do not know why they don’t cheat. But that is another issue, although also relevant for direct democracy.

I know of many formal democracies where large project are chopped into several smaller ones to by-pass rules; it is “standard cheat”. They don’t do it to avoid referendums; they do it for other reasons. For example, to award a contract to a friend, or to someone who gives them money under the table, without having to go to public tender.

Swiss direct democracy has two other ways to control public spending.

One is the voluntary referendum. The other one is the citizen initiative.

A voluntary referendum is voluntary because it happens only if people make it happen.

The other instrument is the citizen initiative. The initiative allows citizens to introduce laws to limit public spending.

However, for reducing public spending the mandatory referendum is the key factor.

The researchers found the cantons with mandatory referendums spend 20% less than the cantons without them. This is an important difference.

They report that citizens initiatives help reduce public spending too.

Perhaps you noticed the study looks at California and at Swiss cantons. You heard that California has huge public spending and huge debt, despite having some direct democracy tools.

One important difference between Switzerland and California is that in California there are no mandatory referendums. It also seems odd that most attempts to hold referendums in California do not meet the criteria to do it… Something is not right with the criteria; if we want citizens to decide, we can not make it difficult. If we make it difficult it means we are not really interested.

This may explain why California’s budget is in deep trouble; the people can not control it.

In contrast, the Swiss also have other important direct democracy tools to control spending.

For example, the “debt brake”. It is written in the Swiss constitution that national government expenses have to be mainly financed by revenues and not by debt.

But, whatever the formal provisions, the hard truth is that the key factors in direct democracy are how people think and behave, not what the constitution says. This applies to spending and to everything else.

If a country is not a prosperous and stable representative democracy it usually is because of the way the people think as a group. The first job is to work to improve  that. I speak of stable and prosperous representative democracies because they are the only ones capable of making the transition to successful direct democracy.

In other posts we will write about what direct democracy requires. We will write too about values and behaviours that may cause direct democracy to fail.

If direct democracy fails, direct democracy’s credibility will suffer. Many will even say: “direct democracy does not work”.

A stable and prosperous representative democracy will be more so with direct democracy, but direct democracy will not make a country stable and prosperous.

Remember this: In the cantons where by law the voters decide, public spending is 20% lower.

But there is another benefit of direct democracy that can be even more important than control of expenses; direct citizen power keeps citizens engaged. One serious problem in representative democracies is citizen alienation. It weakens democracy.

The study also found that in cantons where they have provisions for the citizens to introduce new laws, they also control expenses better.

If you want to reduce and control public spending, wherever you are, you have to do something. You can do things, little or big, to push for mandatory budget and expenses referendums. You can help that happen in school boards, roads, transportation, big projects, etc., it will be a good start,

By doing that you will also help revitalize democracy.

Your comments are necessary for direct democracy to advance. Thank you.

Here is the link to the study. http://www.iandrinstitute.org/docs/Feld-and-Matsusaka-Fiscal-Evidence-from-Swiss-Cantons-IRI.pdf

 

With direct democracy; no fear of populism or elitism

Populism of the “right” or “left” is not the disease, it is the symptom. I write “left” and “right” in quotation marks because they are misleading simplifications of reality,

Why does the US have Trump? Why Brexit? because representative democracy failed. The failings of representative democracy cause populism.

You can call Trump any names you want. You can insult those who voted for him. But if you do that, you cannot find out why Trump became President.

The rational way to deal with Trump’s election is to understand the voters who elected him.

In the US, and in the UK and other democracies, the elected representatives have distanced themselves from the citizens. The distancing has been gradual but deepens as time goes by.

I do not know why this happened. Perhaps it is because the lobbies have too much influence on lawmakers. But it could also be because elected representatives should serve only one term. Many other factors can play a role. Who knows to what extent political polarization has made it more difficult to look at the issues objectively, with less ideological “load”?

If the US had direct democracy, the distancing between the voters and the elected politicians would not be so wide.

Why direct democracy would prevent such polarization?

One possibility is that direct democracy gives the voters the power they need. This enables the people to stop politicians from passing laws they do not support. This means direct democracy keeps the politicians closer to the people.

Politicians also know it is foolish to pass laws the people will reject. Politicians are not stupid; they do not want to work for nothing.

The influence of the people is more effective if they also have the power to make laws and change the constitution.

The lobbies know this too. Therefore, it makes no sense for them to lobby the politicians to pass what the people will not support.

In direct democracy the people decide. People hear the arguments from all sides; they make up their minds and vote.

Swiss local, cantonal and national politics work the same way.

Sometimes Swiss voters go “right” sometimes go “left”. I use these words because they are familiar to most people. I already said I consider them simplistic.

For example, Swiss women could not vote in federal elections until 1972.

Most readers consider this decision by the Swiss unjust and a mistake, but that is how democracy works. The good side to this story is that Switzerland changed peacefully.

On other issues, the Swiss vote in a very different direction. For example, they were the first nation to approve of gay marriage by a national referendum.

“Right” or “Left”, when something has been decided by the people it is very hard for politicians to undo the decision. It would be political suicide.

No politician in Switzerland will try to undo gay marriage. It would be suicidal, unless the thinking of voters changes. One option is for politicians to persuade the public to change its mind. Of course, those opposing those politicians will campaign to the contrary.

It is clear cut; the people have decided, end of argument.

In representative democracy it is the politician who decides. The people may not like the decision. The only options they have are agitating the street or wait for the next election. This creates more division, the arguments go on forever. One way to put a stop to the madness is to let the people decide.

If the American people approve gay marriage, abortion on demand, etc., by referendum those who disagree can not say such laws are contrary to American values. How could they if the American people spoke?

Generally, direct democracy reduces political polarization also. It is also necessary to be in tune with the majority; in direct democracy politicians work to pass laws supported by the majority. In representative democracy often that is not so.

Remember, if you do not like Trump, that in a direct democracy Trump would not have happened. If you like Trump, think direct democracy also, because he would have not been necessary.

Inform yourself, research direct democracy. I believe you will conclude direct democracy will deliver. Switzerland is the best “school” we have for direct democracy.

But the people have to ready for direct democracy. Your country is probably not ready for direct democracy if it is not a stable representative democracy.

If that is the case, the first job is to spread the word about the benefits of direct democracy. The second job is to align individual and social values and behaviours with those that make direct democracy possible and sustainable.

All stable representative democracies are ready to introduce direct democracy. They can start at the local level.

If you support direct democracy, do something every day to spread the word. If you do not, I suggest you learn more for and against it.

As always, your comments will enrich the site, even if you are critical.

Cheers!

Victor

 

Final arguments against direct democracy that also fall flat

Arguments against democracy mentioned by Democracy International eV

There is another organization called Democracy International. It is not related to Democracy International eV. Democracy international is based in the US. Democracy International eV is based in Germany.

Democracy International eV promotes direct democracy and Democracy International promotes democracy in general.

With today’s post we finish with the most common arguments against direct democracy.

Here you have the objections to direct democracy that Democracy International eV mentions. I do not know what Democracy International (without the “eV”) thinks of direct democracy.

Democracy International eV refutes the arguments against direct democracy. You can check them out in their webpage. Here I will give my own common sense answers to the same criticisms. I am sure you can add to them.

The arguments:

“Voter incompetence. In modern society, problems are too complex for the man in the street”.

This “argument” can be used against representative democracy too. How can “ignorant” voters choose the right representative if voters do not understand the problems?

Fortunately, modern information technologies allow voters to be better informed than ever before. In the Web they can find plenty of experts who explain any issue in plain language.

A bigger problem might be that too many voters use the Web to reaffirm their beliefs, not to seek unbiased information. But voters already did that before the Web.

Whatever the capacity of voters is on complex issues, most politicians are not experts on such issues either; they need experts to assist them.

Experts can also help ordinary voters make sense out of the most complex issues. They do that already on health, nuclear energy, pollution, taxes, new technology and on and on.

The facts show Swiss voters are not overwhelmed by the “complex issues” of modern society. They decide, they vote, and the country seems to run better than the rest.

 

“Lack of a sense of responsibility”

This is silly; direct democracy does the opposite.

In direct democracy, voters have an acute sense of responsibility because they decide, they can not easily shift blame.

They avoid voting irresponsibly because they are aware there is no one to blame but themselves. Unlike voters in representative democracies, they can not blame the politicians.

Let us not forget also that if it is the government who calls for referendum, that is not direct democracy. Direct democracy is when the people or the law decide to call the referendum.

 

“In direct democracy demagogues have the freedom to launch crudely populist proposals”.

Not so. In direct democracy, informed and competent voters know they are responsible for what happens to the country. Because of that they avoid following demagogues.

It is in representative democracy where voters are be more likely to fall for demagogues. This is how representative democracies are often destroyed or weakened. Voters without direct power have no direct responsibility. It is easier for such voters to fall for the grandiose promises of demagogues.

Another of the problems of representative democracy is that boosts too much the importance of elected politicians. It puts excessive emphasis on their “leadership qualities”, their “vision”, etc. From here, the “jump” to demagoguery is fairly easy. Better let the people lead themselves, let the people have the vision; they need no leaders with “special qualities”.

Perhaps because of direct democracy, in Switzerland, politics is very low key. Demagogues have no place there. Most voters have their feet firmly planted on the ground; they have to, because they are responsible for the running of their towns, regions and nation.

 

“Lack of possibilities for refining and qualifying the issues: voters can only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a proposal in a referendum; there is no opportunity for greater discrimination and subtlety”.

Not correct; there can be plenty of “discrimination and subtlety” before voting in referendums. It is a matter of putting in place the procedures for that to happen.

In Switzerland, voters know far in advance of voting day when the vote will take place. This gives people opportunity to learn more about the issue. The issues are debated from many angles.

 

“Manipulation of the way the question is presented: the question can be suggestively phrased so that voters are misled into voting against their real convictions”

This does not happen in direct democracy because it is the people or the law who frame the question, not the government.

The criticism is perhaps addressed to when the politicians decide to call a referendum, but that is not direct democracy.

 

“Enthusiastic activists can take over democracy via the referendum, because the silent majority doesn’t take part in referendums”

There is no silent majority in direct democracy.

In a typical year 80% of the Swiss vote in referendums, not  a bad turn out. But on a single referendum, participation often is lower. Common figures are 40-50%. This happens because one single issue may not interest many voters.

For example, many voters do not care if speed limits in highways are lowered or raised. Other voters may not care about setting a minimum wage, etc.

But there are also individual referendums where voter turn out can be very high, as high as 70%. This happened in a recent referendum on immigration.

Besides, nothing wrong if “enthusiastic activists” promote effectively a point of view, as long as they are peaceful and fair.

 

“Referendums are unnecessary because there are better ways of allowing the people to discuss political issues”

It is possible but I do not know of a better method. The  elites do not know aby better, we see it over and over. Who decides which “other way is better”? Only the people can decide that and… it will have to be by referendum!

 

“Referendums threaten the unity of the country”.

This argument makes no sense.

If a referendum threatens the unity of the country it is because the country was not united before the referendum.

Referendums by informed and competent voters probably strengthen the unity of the country. This is so because referendums help run the country in tune with the wishes of voters.

 

I hope this little blog helps people feel more comfortable with direct democracy. Help spread the word!

I thank you for your comments and suggestions to improve the blog.

Cheers!

Victor

 

Last batch of arguments cited by International IDEA against Direct Democracy

“Direct democracy has conservative bias”.

Direct democracy is not about being progressive or conservative. Direct democracy is direct power by the people.

The labels conservative-progressive are outdated. Enough of such labeling and self-labeling!; let us focus on solving concrete problems.

Thinking in terms of “Conservative-progressive” limits our freedom to think of ourselves and of others. Voters should apply reason to every issue. Many voters some times vote “conservative” and sometimes “progressive”.

For example, a voter can vote for tax payer funded health care for all. The same person can also vote against gay marriage.

Another voter may vote for business to have total freedom to fire workers. But that person can also vote for excellent social benefits for workers.

A voter can vote to reduce taxes for business and also vote to give jail time to the executives of companies who cheat consumers.

Direct democracy is people deciding; if they “go right”, fine. It is also fine if the “go left”

“Non-elite citizens are less educated and less cosmopolitan than elites, and may maintain more traditional or even reactionary values: transferring decision making from (relatively elite) politicians to ordinary citizens can therefore hinder progressive reforms”.

I am not sure where to start!. The person who came up with that comment is not a democrat. Instead of rule by the people, he or she promotes rule by the elites. Elitist thinking has nothing to do with direct democracy, or with representative democracy.

Direct democracy is based on information and common sense. Common sense is the most important human intelligence, and much harder to master than academic knowledge.

“Authoritarian and populist abuse. Historically, authoritarian rulers such as Napoleon in France, Franco in Spain, Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines and Park Chung Hee in South Korea have used uncompetitive referendums to create a false veneer of democratic legitimacy”.

What examples! I do not know if Hitler or Stalin also held referendums…

Such regimes have nothing to do with direct democracy. A referendum, by itself is not direct democracy.

“Referendums are expensive”

The Swiss have referendums more often than anyone else.

With no natural resources, Switzerland is one of the top countries in standard of living.

The cost of referendums does not seem to hurt Switzerland much. If it did, they could change the Constitution and ban referendums. But perhaps referendums, far from being “expensive” are good economic investments.

“Direct democracy may create social conflict and affect minority rights”.

With well informed and competent voters, that will not happen. Smart voters want to avoid conflict. They avoid approving laws that create conflict.

If voters are not informed and are not competent, anything can happen in direct or in representative democracy. In fact, uninformed and incompetent voters weaken and even destroy democracy.

Switzerland has four autochthonous cultures, two major religions and many others, four official languages and countless others are spoken, 25% of the inhabitants of Switzerland are immigrants from all over the World.

Switzerland is 62.6% German, 22.9% French, 8.2% Italian and 0.5% Romansh 0.5%. I never heard the German majority passes laws that mistreat the Romansch, Italian or French.

“Direct democracy can polarize debate, exacerbate political divisions and increase the potential for destabilizing reactions such as boycotts or violence”.

This argument is just speculation.

The only direct democracy (well, semi-direct) we have in the World, Switzerland is an example of the opposite. Switzerland practices cooperative decision making. They do that in politics and also in business.

In Switzerland the major parties govern in coalition. There is no “opposition” party. That is possible because there is much less of the adversarial politics we see in representative democracies. Perhaps direct democracy contributes to that. But in coming blogs we will write plenty about the advantages of direct democracy. After all, that is why the blog exists.

In short; far from creating political division, it seems direct democracy does the opposite.

“The mechanisms of direct democracy have many problems”.

Come on! You can say that about the mechanisms of representative democracy too.

“Legal drafting of laws is extremely complex”.

The legal details are complex but voters are competent to say: “we want to lower the speed limits”, “we do not want to join the European Union”, etc.

The laws are drafted by legal experts. Voters tell the experts what law they want.

“Hate crimes in the UK surged because of the Brexit vote”

This is not an argument against direct democracy.

In the first place, The UK is not a direct democracy. The Brexit referendum does not make the UK a direct democracy.

But even if hate crimes rose because of the Brexit referendum, the common sense answer is prosecution of the guilty, not to stop referendums.

International IDEA also mentions that in a Hungarian referendum “the people had voted in favour of closing doors to refugees, but less that half of the eligible voters voted”.

This does not invalidate the vote.

In Switzerland it is not uncommon less than half of the voters vote in some referendums. The Swiss people do not consider the results illegitimate because of that.

Voters could fix that too. All they have to do is hold a referendum making invalid any referendum in which less than half of the people vote, or two thirds, etc.

International IDEA also mentions referendums in Egypt as indication direct democracy can be problematic.

Egypt is not a direct democracy by any stretch. Egypt is not even a stable representative democracy. Makes no sense to criticize direct democracy because of what happens in Egypt.

“It can be all too easy for direct democracy initiatives to bypass, rather than complement, the work of the legislature”.

Direct democracy is the opposite. In direct democracy the people do not “by-pass” the legislators because the people are the supreme legislators.

What direct democracy does is prevent politicians from bypassing voters, which is one of the problems of representative democracy.

In the next blog:

Other, and final, arguments against direct democracy cited by another important organization.

Your comments are welcomed.

Cheers!

Victor