When do we have full, real direct democracy in a country? Part I.

We have it, if several facts are present. I say facts, not what the constitutions or laws say. Words, no matter how well written or how well they sound, are not facts, only facts are facts.

One fact of direct democracy is that citizens have the final say in all important issues. The people must also be able to decide what is important, not government.

The people must also the power to decide at all levels of government; national, regional, state, city, town and village.

It is essential that it be at all levels.

Only if people decide at all government levels do we have a culture of direct democracy. Without the culture of direct democracy, direct democracy can not function. This is no different in representative democracy. “It is the culture, stupid!”

We do not have direct democracy in the country if the people can; for example, force a referendum at the city level but not at the federal level, or the other way around.

Direct democracy is a way of thinking about public issues, a state of mind, a belief that citizens must “run the show”. If we have the culture, the mechanisms formalize it and they will work. If we do not have the culture, direct democracy will not work.

But the culture can be developed with the practice. Lo learn direct democracy you have to practice direct democracy. Like in any learning process, start small, with the simple stuff, and then advance. If we “bite more than we can chew” it will not work. We may then become frustrated and discouraged. Perhaps they will conclude “direct democracy does not work”.

But it is not so, direct democracy works if we develop the collective skills to make it work, just like it happens with representative democracy. You know of many countries where representative democracy does not work very well. Sometimes it even collapses into “revolutionary” authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, direct democracy is no different. In fact, for a short period, the Swiss almost lost direct democracy to representative democracy.

Ancient Greece direct democracy lasted for several centuries. Democratic Greece was head and shoulders above any other culture of the time, but then died. Direct democracy is no doubt the best system because it enables ordinary citizens to decide by themselves how to run society. But it is not a simple system.

Any important human achievement is not simple; science is difficult, classical music is difficult, research is difficult, great art is difficult, etc.

One important and positive aspect of direct democracy, is that the people do not need “visionaries”, “prophets”, “great leaders” and so on. The people develop the “vision” and decide by themselves. They do not need special people.

It is not a direct democracy either if it is the government who decides on what issues the people can vote, no matter how many times they vote. In direct democracy it is the law that establishes when the people vote and also the people decide when they want to decide.

But that is not enough. The process must be easy and straightforward. Even one single citizen must be able to initiate the process. Perhaps new technologies will make direct democracy even better.

But voting on issues is not enough. We do not have real, full, direct democracy if ordinary people do not run the public institutions also. If elected representatives run the public institutions that is not direct democracy, it is still representative democracy.

In full direct democracy ordinary citizens are selected by lot to serve in government. But there must be some form of screening such people. The screening is done by citizen assemblies which are representative of society. Membership in the citizen’s assemblies is also by lot.

The assembly does a careful screening of those who will serve. Such careful screening is more like the screening we do to select people for important positions in most democracies; most judges, official representatives, heads of public services, etc. For such jobs we do not normally rely on a political campaign. Perhaps we do this because political campaigns can be dominated by clever marketing and the “media circus” that prevent substantial evaluation of candidates.

You may be interested in knowing that in Switzerland, the national government is selected by parliament. It does no emerge as a result of a political campaign. But still is not selection by lot, followed by screening by the assembly.

In the assembly, membership is by lot but also representative of society. The assembly votes and decides who is fit to be president, minister, mayor, councilor, judge, prosecutor, police chief, etc.

The assembly could also vote on issues but it is more democratic that all citizens have the opportunity to decide on issues, except in the case of particular urgent situations, such as a catastrophe.

People also may step forward before the assembly as candidates. But random selection is also possible. Naturally, before a person can assume his or her responsibilities, the assembly, or another body where a cross section of citizens is represented, will screen those selected to serve.

This is necessary because it would be irrational to have anyone selected by lot to occupy a position that requires special judgment and/or technical expertise. All citizens are equal before the law but citizens do not have equal judgment or equal knowledge.

Just like it happens in any form of government, depending on the nature of the position, it will be necessary for that person to be assisted by technical experts.

One further difference between full direct democracy and representative democracy is that in full direct democracy there are no professional politicians.

What I mean is that the citizens serve for a fixed time and then return to their ordinary life. This is important because it prevents the creation of a political class.

A political class is not compatible with full direct democracy because if we have a political class then they are no longer ordinary citizens.

Such people can not help but have group and class interests.

Because politics is their job they will want to better their working conditions, salaries, pensions, etc. Because professional politicians make the laws it is easy to understand why politicians in representative democracies are often seen by ordinary citizens as privileged people.

Even the Swiss do not have full direct democracy. In Switzerland they have professional politicians. However, Swiss politicians are often part time politicians, even in the national government. Often they keep their regular jobs. This keeps them more in touch with “real life”.

The key difference between Swiss representative democracy and other representative democracies is that the Swiss people have the final say, and prevail over the politicians, if they so decide. In this regard the Swiss have essential elements of direct democracy.

In the next post I will complete this short discussion about real, full direct democracy and also how the Swiss show the way.

Would you like direct democracy in your country if you thought the people are ready for it?


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