More arguments against direct democracy that “promote” direct democracy

We take a look at other arguments against direct democracy that International IDEA mentions.

But first I want to say a few words about direct democracy.

Most people around the World do not know much about direct democracy.

Totalitarian or authoritarian regimes are not interested in democracy, direct or otherwise, for obvious reasons. Representative democracies are not too keen on discussing direct democracy either.

A country is a direct or semi direct democracy if people have direct control overt all levels of government.

It is not a direct democracy if, for example, voters decide issues at the local level but not at the national level, or vice versa.

In direct democracy, voters decide on concrete issues and laws at the local, regional and national level.

A country is not a direct democracy because the government holds a referendum on this or that issue.

For example, Switzerland is a direct democracy because voters decide at all levels. They do so with mandatory referendums, discretionary referendums and citizen initiatives.

But Switzerland is not a full direct democracy because still has politicians and political parties.

Mandatory referendums. These are called because, by law, some decisions of the national, cantonal (a canton is like a state in a federal state) and local parliaments must be approved by the people.

Such parliaments must hold referendums if their decisions affect the Constitution. They must also hold referendums on important financial decisions and decisions to join international organizations.

There are also discretionary referendums in Switzerland. The voters trigger them. Voters can call such referendums on laws voted by any level of government. In this way, Swiss voters have more power than their elected representatives. Surprising and neat, is it not?

Swiss voters can also use another instrument to exercise their power, the popular initiatives.

Popular initiatives give Swiss voters the power to change the Swiss national constitution. Often, the changes deal with healthcare, taxes, welfare, drugs, transport, immigration, asylum, and education.

Let us continue with the criticisms of direct democracy that International IDEA mentions.

“Voter irrationality”.

In a direct democracy voters are not likely to vote irrationally. This is because voters know they have to put up with the consequences of their decisions.

In representative democracy they can always “blame the politicians” because voters do not decide on issues.

In a stable direct democracy most voters are rational voters. In stable representative democracy most voters are rational also. Rational voters are what makes such democracies stable.

Voter rationality is essential to any democracy. Swiss voters probably have the most rational voting track record of any nation.

Besides, I am not sure elected politicians are more rational than the average voter. History has many examples of the opposite.

Another criticism is: “Direct democracy lets people speak, but it is not always clear what they are trying to say”.

In representative democracies it is much less clear what people try to say. All they say with their vote is: “I vote for this person because I believe he or she will do a good job”.

“In direct democracy the people do not always vote with the specific issue put to referendum in mind”.

In representative democracy people also vote with many things in mind. The advantage of direct democracy is that, even if the voters have many things in mind, they must decide one concrete thing.

“Voter fatigue”.

This is not a serious argument. Some say that if people have to vote “too often” many will not participate and only a minority will vote.

As example, they give Switzerland because Swiss voters often turn out to vote in low numbers. But this also happens in representative democracies. Some representative democracies make voting mandatory. I suppose if they do so it is because they do not have much confidence that voters will turn up to vote in large numbers on their own.

But one could also argue that many Swiss voters, and other voters, may not turn up to vote because they trust the process, or because the issue is of no concern to them. Why should they vote if the issue is not important to those voters?

“Those without strong views on the issue may not vote”.

If they abstain it is reasonable to think they do it because the issue is not so important to them, nothing wrong with that.

“Politicians may use referendums to avoid making decisions, especially on issues in which the governing party or coalition is internally divided”.

I see nothing wrong with that either.

The politicians may believe the country is as divided as they are. In such cases it is prudent to let the people decide.

But let us remember that this is not direct democracy. In direct democracy it is the people who decide if they want to be consulted, or the law forces the politicians to consult the people. The politicians do not decide when the people should be consulted.

“In a referendum people express their opinion on an issue at a particular time; they are not required to consider the issue as part of a whole. They will not consider the long term”.

When voters cast their ballots in a referendum they always have in mind many considerations. This is so because they know the result of a referendum has many consequences.

As for long term considerations, I believe Informed and competent voters keep in mind their long term interests. They think of the country, their children, their business, their jobs, etc.

That is often not the case with elected representatives. We know politicians are driven by their desire to win the next election. Not much long term thinking there… We all know of situations where politicians practically buy votes with all sorts of promises right before voting day.

The authors mention California as a place where voters chose to spend, spend, increasing public debt and not thinking long term.

First of all, California is not a direct democracy. Californian voters do not have anywhere near the power AND responsibility of Swiss voters at the national, cantonal (state) or local level.

California has some of the elements of direct democracy but it is not a direct democracy. This means that California voters are not “trained” in direct democracy.

It is also possible that Californian voters are not as well informed as Swiss voters, or are not as competent as Swiss voters for other reasons.

I do not think direct democracy is at the root of California’s key problems. Many voters in California say one key problem is not enough direct democracy.

There could be other reasons for California’s voter behaviour regarding spending. Perhaps the way issues are discussed does not inform well. For example if the media are partisan and highly polarized.

It is also possible the California educational system does not prepare voters as well as the Swiss system.

“Referendums and citizen’s initiatives may sometimes be proposed by the rich and powerful to promote their interests at the expense of the common good”.

I believe the rich and powerful have far less influence in direct democracy than in representative democracy. This is because they know the people can stop a law if they feel it goes against their interests. This means lobbies in direct democracy are less likely to push for laws that annoy the people. For the same reason, politicians are less likely to pass such laws.

I see nothing wrong if large companies or unions persuade the elected politicians to pass this or that law, as long as there is open and fair debate, and as long the citizens have the power stop such laws.

We are not done yet. In the next blog we will continue and finish with the criticisms of direct democracy.

I see that the criticisms are easily turned into arguments for direct democracy. I love such criticisms!

Please feel free to comment.


Victor Lopez


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