With direct democracy, politicians are closer to the citizens. Part I.

Direct democracy puts decision making in the hands of citizens. Because of that there is no need have long, heated debates in parliament.

Voters will hear all the arguments as part of the referendum process, no need to go on and on in parliament.

Because the citizens decide, elected representatives have to dedicate less time to the issues to “be right”. Instead, the people decide and hold themselves accountable; “… by the people…” as that famous sentence says.

Another effect of direct democracy is that representatives have a lighter workload and do not need as much staff to research uses, prepare for debates and appearances in the media, etc. Besides helping save time, direct democracy also saves money in this area.

It is also interesting that because people need to understand the issues in order to decide, the language used in referendum-related presentations is plain, to the point. “Legalese” and “jargonese” are less present.

There are more benefits.

Since politicians know the people have the final say on laws or policies, the behaviours of politicians, instead of antagonistic to “defeat” rivals, is more cooperative. “Let us produce laws most people will approve”, seems to be what elected representatives in direct democracy think.  Their horizon is not the next election but the next issue. It is the people who are responsible for the long-term horizon far beyond the next election.

In Switzerland they do not have such a thing as “majority government”, they govern in coalitions. You could say “the majority governs”.

Coalitions rest on cooperation. Cooperation means politicians work with the elected representatives of the other major parties to produce laws and decisions acceptable to the decision makers, to the people.

Cooperative work also requires far less time to decide than competitive, antagonistic work.  Decisions made in a cooperative spirit, are also superior to adversarial decisions. This is so because in cooperative decision-making the brainpower of all parties works more towards the common goal. 

Direct democracy also helps avoid another problem; we all see how difficult it is to tell in antagonistic parliaments if the debates are about the issues or about “being right” and getting positive media coverage. I often think parliament moderators should ask members: “does the honorable member want to be right or to solve the problem?”

Another positive effect of direct democracy is that it helps develop a culture of cooperation throughout society, in other areas beyond politics. This is not a small benefit.

Cooperation also helps efficiency because people do not waste time in arguments. This might explain why Switzerland has such high GDP per person; the Swiss are efficient, even more efficient than the famously efficient Germans.

Cooperation, which does not mean “saying yes” to the boss, also helps develop innovations requiring teamwork. Many are very surprised, I was too, when they learn Switzerland exports per person twice as much as Germany, and eight times more than the US, in high tech, high value added goods and services.

Because direct democracy politics requires less time of politicians, they have time to keep their regular jobs. This helps them stay aware of the issues that concern ordinary people. Full-time politicians live in a very different reality, remote from ordinary people, economically and psychologically.

Another effect of the lower workload of elected representatives in direct democracy is that parliament does not have to sit all year, like it does in representative democracies.

For example, both chambers of the Swiss national government sit only 4 times a year, each time for only three weeks. This means Swiss national (federal) politicians only have to be in the national capital 12 weeks in the whole year. The rest of the time they are in their districts and also doing their regular jobs as private citizens.

In the Swiss cantons, elected representatives are even in more close contact with citizens because the cantonal parliaments meet usually only for one day each month.

Since politicians in direct democracy stay closer to the lives of ordinary citizens, they draft laws and make decisions more in tune with what concerns the people. As a result, most citizens are more likely to support what elected representatives propose.

Isn’t it surprising that part-time direct democracy politicians, who have less decision making power than representative democracy politicians, and invest less time in politics, represent citizens better than full-time elected representatives in representative democracy?

The overall effect is that direct democracy gets closer to turn into facts the intentions of Lincoln’s famous sentence “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

In the next post I will continue with the discussion on how part-time direct democracy produces better politicians and better politics.

All your comments are appreciated.


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