It is interesting to know that in many democracies, according to this or that poll, the majority of voters support, or oppose this or that law.
Much more interesting, because it is much more important, is to let voters decide on the laws, or even propose new ones..
Two examples just a few months ago in Switzerland illustrate the difference between representative democracy and (direct) democracy.
On February 9, 2020 Swiss voters decided to make it illegal to discriminate people on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The history behind the vote is very educative for anyone interested in direct democracy.
Swiss law had already made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, culture-ethnic origin or religion. Swiss politicians, the Swiss Parliament, decided it was time to expand the protection to homosexuals and other sexual orientations.
But some people in Switzerland disagreed with the proposed bill. The got moving. They were able to get 50 000 Swiss citizens, within 100 days after Parliament passed the law, to back them up. This forced the government to hold a referendum on the proposed law. The people would decide if the law would stand or would have to be withdrawn.
Notice how a bill approved by the elected representatives of the Swiss people could be challenged by a relatively small number of ordinary citizens, and/or political parties, before the law comes into effect.
Most bills approved by the Swiss representative politicians are not challenged. This is because Swiss politicians have learned to develop laws that have the support of the vast majority of voters.
Most voters know this. This means that in most cases the people who oppose the bill are a relatively small number and understand than in democracy the will of the majority has to prevail.
But sometimes, those who oppose the bill believe they are the majority, or believe that the majority will support them. When this happens, they do what the people who challenged the bill forbidding gay discrimination did, they gathered 50 000 signatures and people voted in a national referendum.
If the results of the referendum supported them then the bill would not pass. The politicians would have to go back to the drawing board, or drop the bill until society is more receptive to the proposed law.
But, perhaps the biggest strength of the referendum is that, if the people who oppose the proposed law lose the referendum they will have no rational choice but to accept the results. Conversely, if they win, the losers will have to accept the result. This is great for democracy and long term stability.
The losers will not be able to go around complaining that the new bill “offends the traditions of the country”, “is an attempt against traditional practices”, etc. If they do, they quickly will be told things like: “You believe in democracy, right? You thought that most people would support you, but the vote clearly indicates that they do not; you had your opportunity, you lost the argument, so move on”.
It would be ridiculous for a person who considers himself or herself a democrat, a person who had the opportunity to put the matter to a vote by fellow citizens, and did so, to continue complaining that “protection of gay rights weakens traditional customs, or that gays did not need the protection of the new law”, or whatever. The people have voted, end of the issue. Of course, the debate can continue; perhaps public opinion will change.
Not accepting the results of a referendum would be like not accepting that someone got elected; irrational and totally antidemocratic.
In this particularly case, the opponents of the law clearly lost the referendum; 63% of voters said “no”. The law protecting gays became the law of Switzerland. It is interesting that 37% voted with the losers. This shows that large minorities have to learn to accept defeat without taking to the streets,… or worse.
Some people say “the Swiss were late in the introduction of such law”. They were late, but if the result of moving more slowly is to settle the issue for good, because the people have spoken, it is much better for long term stability; when the political elites, the lobbies, the judges, the “opinion leaders” decide it does not carry the same weight. When the people “speak” with their vote it is almost ridiculous for anyone to argue with that.
In countries where the politicians decide, where the people can not decide, the arguments never end. The reason is obvious; decisions made by democratically elected politicians are not democratic when the majority of the people oppose them, it does not matter that the representatives have been legally elected. Democracy is about the will of the majority of the people, not about the will of the majority of those elected by the people.
Of course, it could have gone the other way. People would say: “but it is clearly wrong not to protect gay people”. That is an opinion.
In democracy there are no sacred principles emanating from a god, from some extraordinary prophets or visionary politicians. In democracy we have only the will of the people. We hope that most people have enough common sense to make the right decision. Each voter may use religion, reason, intuition, inspiration, etc., to decide their vote, but that is an individual issue.
In the case of Switzerland I believe they made the right decision on gays, but that is only my opinion. Even if I opposed them, democratically, they reached the right decision.
No matter how many human rights experts say gays should be protected, what counts is the will of the majority. If the human rights experts have really good arguments, they should be able to persuade the majority of voters that gays should be protected. In the case of Switzerland it seems their ideas were successful.
But the opposite can also happen.
In another case, the Swiss also voted on something else on the same day. They voted on a law proposed by citizens. The proposed law mandated 10% of housing in Switzerland be dedicated to “social housing” (“social housing” means housing were the landlord is the government or non-profit cooperatives). The result of the referendum was “no”, Swiss voters decided Switzerland does not need more social housing.
Many ordinary people and social experts may claim that it is an injustice because a number of Swiss people can not find housing they at a reasonable price. They made their argument, the voters decided and those who did not like the result had to move on; just like the opponents of the law protecting gays.
In this case, the issue was not to challenge a law proposed by the politicians. In this case the issue was to vote on a law proposed by citizens. This in Switzerland they call an “initiative”. Initiatives allow ordinary citizens to propose laws. A number of Swiss citizens and political parties believed the people would approve the introduction of such law.
The promoters of the initiative had to gather 100 000 signatures, but they had more time to gather them, they had 18 months, much longer than the 100 days to challenge a parliamentary bill.
The end result was that the majority spoke and the minority had to accept the decision, just like the minority had to do in the case of protection of gays.
That is what democracy is: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, not “government of the representatives of the people, by the representatives of the people, for the representatives of the people”. Sadly, in too many stable democracies we even have too much of the last part…, but that is another issue that direct democracy also tackles effectively.
So, let us get moving and bring democracy to your land. Elected representatives? no problem, but the final word has to be by the people.