Direct democracy: the issues in the front seat and politics in the back seat.

I am convinced direct democracy is the next step in human social development.

It is too bad that if we establish direct democracy, all we will do is catch up with the ancient Greeks. Even Switzerland, the only country we can say practices direct democracy, has not caught up with the Greeks.

But it is a good we are advancing and direct democracy is gaining supporters. Perhaps you will be one of them.

Many countries have now organizations to promote direct democracy.  Your country might have one or  ore. Some countries already have political parties to do just that.

But for direct democracy to happen it is essential that reasonable people persuade themselves direct democracy provides all the benefits of solid representative democracy. I have no doubt that in solid democracies most voters are reasonable people.

But reasonable people would not change just for what they already have. Fortunately, direct democracy addresses some key issues  of representative democracy that we know concern most voters.

I have glanced at what others write about the advantages and disadvantages of direct democracy. Two writings are good summaries. The first is published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the second one by Democracy International.

It is worthwhile to see what t they say, and also who they are. By looking at their nature we might be able to understand better their criticism of direct democracy.

International IDEA is an official organization based in Sweden. Its member states are: Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Finland, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Luxemburg, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Namibia, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Tunisia.

International IDEA in 2019 ranked Spain the 13th best democracy in the World. IDEA gives Spain a score on par with the United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium, and higher than Canada, France and Austria.

Looking at some of IDEA’s member states, and at this ranking of Spain, I have doubts about IDEA’s ranking system. I say this because I know Spain and Canada well. Spain is a democracy, but there is no way Spain can rank higher than Canada in quality of democracy.

On paper, Spain may very well be more democratic than Canada. For example, in Spain, the head of state is not the head of the Church, in Canada it is, but no one notices it in their lives because of the pragmatic political culture of “Anglo-Saxon” countries. Other facts show Canada is a more solid democracy than Spain.

Canada has more judicial independence, more trust between citizens and government, more renovation of political parties, far less corruption, etc.

I am also a bit concerned about the evaluation of direct democracy by an organization with only one member, Switzerland, who practices direct democracy. But perhaps that is good. I like it because their representatives will argue against direct democracy. They will also do it well because they are competent people.

On the other hand, the Swiss representative in IDEA is unlikely to argue against direct democracy, but perhaps I am wrong. He might have played devil’s advocate. That would be good; it is essential that direct democracy attract people, in spite of the arguments against it.

The other organization, Democracy International, is a private US-based organization promoting democracy around the World. Democracy international does not seem to be for or against direct democracy.

There is another organization with a very similar name to Democracy International, Democracy International eV. This organization is a promoter of direct democracy. I only mention it to prevent confusing the two.

I do not know if Democracy International eV promotes direct democracy because it believes it is the best system for democracy, or the best system to advance its political agenda.

There are other organizations who promote democracy, direct and otherwise. Unfortunately, most of them have a political agenda. They seem to look at democracy as the tool to promote their grand “solutions to everything”.

Some of them push to the “left”, some to the “right”. I am not interested in that. I am interested in direct decision making by the people regardless of the direction in which they decide.

For example, if the people vote to nationalize everything, or privatize everything, it is fine with direct democracy. It is also OK if the people decide that everyone will have an income paid with taxes. Years later they may decide to reverse the decision. That is OK too with direct democracy.

Direct democracy is that the people have the power, not the elected representatives. The elected politicians could be the ones to carry out the decision.

However, in Ancient Greek democracy, there were no elected politicians and no political parties; the citizens run the whole show. No need for parties or politicians. In Switzerland they still have parties and politicians.

In Ancient Greece, citizens were selected by lot, or were elected to represent their fellow citizens, and also to run the government. They served for one or for a few years. Once their time was up they went back to their regular jobs. They were barred from serving again. Sometimes they could serve again but only after many years had passed.

One appealing idea of direct democracy is that the issue is the focus, not how the left, right or center will deal with it.

Direct democracy is not about how a political party, representing an ideology, will deal with the issue as per their electoral program. Direct democracy is not about a political belief, religion or whatever, either. It is a tool, a way to run society. In direct democracy when people vote, their beliefs play a role, but we also know people can vote in one way on one issue and in the opposite way on another one.

I think it is good if most voters do not define themselves as “progressives”, “liberals”, “conservatives”, “leftists” or “rightists”. I prefer we look at the issues and feel free of “being” on the left, the right or the center.

To some extent political beliefs limit our ability to deal with the issues, diminishes our capacity to reach consensus, create too much of an “us” vs. “them” frame of mind, etc. I believe it is better to focus on the issue without “filtering” it through our ideology.

Tomorrow I will look at the arguments for and against direct democracy.

Víctor López

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