Does direct democracy really work?

I found in Internet a very interesting study by  Simon Geissbühler, a respected researcher. I summarized it for you. You can read the full text in

Here and there I add my own comments.

First of all, the vast majority of Swiss citizens support direct democracy. Studies also tell us Swiss citizens show high support and trust in government, higher than in any representative democracy.

Direct democracy promotes political stability. Everyone knows Switzerland is probably the most stable country in the World, decade after decade.

It does it although it is a multicultural and multilingual country. It is a country with a German majority and French, Italian and Romansch minorities. There is no doubt Switzerland has far less ethno-cultural-language tensions than countries such as United Kingdom, Spain, Canada, the US, France or Italy.

As history shows it is also far more stable than many “unitary states” representative democracies like Germany, Austria, France or Italy.

Direct democracy in Switzerland has contributed to integrating different political, language, religious/confessional and cultural groups. Sure, the Swiss by popular referendum banned the construction of new minarets in mosques. This strikes many as intolerant. But in democracy, nobody is a higher moral authority than the people. If we do not accept that, then we are not democrats, no matter how much we wrap it in “moral” rationalizations.

Of course, in direct democracy, like in representative democracy, the people can make mistakes. The possible mistake of the minarets is a very small mistake in comparison with the mistakes representative democracies have made and are making with their minorities.

The historical evidence shows that, overall, direct democracy in Switzerland makes better decisions than any representative democracy in all areas, not just treatment of minorities.

Direct democracy puts politics in the hands of voters. Because of that, in direct democracy, the elites and the lobbies have less power. No need for violent demonstration in the streets against the elites because direct democracy controls de elites.

I have nothing against the elites of any political  or economic orientation, but their power must be kept in check for the sake of long term stability. The elites need stability more than anybody else. Representative democracy finds it harder to control the elites and the lobbies.

In direct democracy, small groups have more influence in the political agenda because they can initiate referendums.

Direct democracy also ensures reforms are long lasting because they have popular support.

Direct democracy is not the tyranny of the majority because direct democracy is centered on issues, not in party in ideology or overall rightist or leftist agendas. In direct democracy, sometimes the majority says “yes” to a reform opposed by conservatives, sometimes it says “yes” to one opposed by progressives.

Some say representative democracy can become “tyrannical”. This is not so,  On the contrary, in representative democracy an absolute majority government can ram through a very conservative, or very progressive, law or policy, without the direct support of the people, or even if the people oppose it. Such government can do so because it controls the legislature. In direct democracy the people can and stop unpopular laws and other measures passed by majority governments.

In direct democracy the power of the people acts also as a moderating force in governments and legislators. In direct democracy, a majority government has far less power than such government in representative democracy. This is so because the people have more power.

In direct democracy the people trust politicians more. Perhaps because politicians can not ignore the sentiments of voters once they have voted. That is not the case in representative democracy between elections.

One of the effects of ignoring voters between elections is low trust in politicians in most, not all, representative democracies. This also shows that, while direct democracy promotes more trust, trust in politicians is also possible in representative democracy. Like in many situations, “the devil is in the details of execution”.

Direct democracy in Switzerland demonstrates ordinary citizens can understand complex issues. So can people in representative democracies. I think that if we can file our taxes, understand our mortgages, master our jobs and the subjects we had to study at school and university, we can also can understand and vote on any issue, if it is explained to us. Direct democracy also pushes citizens to think harder and better to vote responsibly than representative democracy. It does so because in direct democracy people know they are responsible for the effects of their decisions. They can no longer blame the politicians.

Anyhow, politicians are not experts in most matters in which they vote. They have to rely on explanations by experts. You, the average voter can do that too.

It is not true that participation in direct democracy is low. It is low, around 40-50%, on EACH referendum, because issues may interest a significant minority, but not the majority. However, if we take into account overall voting in referendums over one year, 80% of Swiss voters do go and vote. This is very high participation, much higher than in elections in representative democracies.

Direct democracy is less susceptible to lobbies. This is so because it easier to influence politicians, in more or less private meetings, than it is to influence millions of voters in the open.

Perhaps for the same reason, direct democracy reduces the tendency of politicians to spend money to make their own political clientele happy. Studies have shown that in Swiss cantons where citizens have more direct democratic rights, public services for all tend to be better and taxes lower. It is no longer a matter of “I will bring high speed train to your city”, “I will make sure the government builds a new school for your kids”, etc. In direct democracy, the citizens decide that.

Direct democracy does not restrict social benefits to those who need them. Direct democracy promotes social benefits and also efficiency in their delivery. This is so because most voters recognize the poor and others in need must be helped, but they also recognize money can not be wasted, because they pay.

The average citizen recognizes some people must be helped because they need the help and also because poverty and marginalization is bad for all of society. There is no reason to fear direct democracy will reduce social benefits. Switzerland has an excellent system of social services and perhaps the best universal health system in the World, as well as one of the best educational systems.

The size of government in direct democracy is not smaller but it is more efficient because of citizen control.  Switzerland’s government, at all levels, is not smaller than in representative democracies. The difference is that in Switzerland what government does, and how much it does, is better controlled by voters.

So, there you have it! I hope this information to help you persuade others to support direct democracy and a better life for all, it helps me every day.



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