We understand democracy as “government by the people”. This means that the will of the people, the will of the majority, prevails.
In representative democracies, the only moment the will of the majority prevails is at election time. Once they vote, all executive power is in the hands of the elected representatives.
The representatives have all the power; the elected executive executes, the elected legislature passes the laws, and together they decide who sits in the highest courts of the land. It is obvious they have all the power.
Representative democracy is not ruled by the people at all.
In a real democracy, the will of the majority would prevail at all times in all important issues. To have that, we we need decision-making mechanisms that do not exist in representative democracies.
It starts with the constitution of the country; it is a funny thing that in representative democracies the constitutions, more or less state: “the people give themselves the constitution”, yet the people do not have the authority to change the constitution.
Let me give you a few examples.
This is what the preamble to the US Constitution says: “
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Yet, in the US only the legislators, in Washington and each state, have the power to change the constitution, the people can not do that. The elected representatives change the constitution without the consent of the people.
In France, things are not very different; the President can start a revision of the constitution. If three-fifths of the legislature approve the revision, they change the constitution; the people have no say at all.
In the UK is much the same. The UK does not have a formal constitution; there are several “basic laws”. Together, these laws amount to a UK Constitution. In the UK, like in the US and in France, the people do not have the power to change the basic laws, the politicians do.
On to Germany; the preamble to the German Basic Law, equivalent to the constitution in other countries, states: “Inspired by the determination to promote World peace as an equal partner in a United Europe, the German people, in the exercise of their constituent power, have adopted this Basic Law.”
It is not true the German people “… adopted this Basic Law”. The Basic Law rules Germany because the four Allied powers of WW II, and the politicians in West and East Germany, decided in 1990 the contents of the Basic Law; the Constitution of Germany. The German people never decided to adopt the Basic Law; not much democracy there.
The German Basic law also states. “All state authority is derived from the people”. Sadly, without the consent or agreement of the German people, if two-thirds of the legislators agree to change the Basic Law, they change the Basic Law.
Italy is not much different; the politicians can propose a change to the Italian Constitution. If two-thirds of the elected representatives agree on the change, then the Constitution changes, there is no requirement to involve the people.
So, never mind the solemnity of the words; “the people are sovereign”, “the people gave themselves the constitution”. What sort of sovereignty is it if “the sovereigns” can not make their will prevail?
Sovereignty means having “supreme political power”. The facts on the ground show that in representative democracies the people do not have supreme political power.
In most other representative democracies, things are not too different. The most citizens can do in very few countries, such as Denmark, is approve or reject what the politicians propose for the constitution.
Regarding ordinary laws under the constitution, forget it, the people have no power to say much unless the politicians so decide or… they take to the streets…
Only Switzerland, with its special version of direct and representative democracy, can claim that the people are really sovereign. Over there, the people do have direct control over the constitution and also over all laws under the constitution.
Because of the imbalance of power between the politicians and the people, representative democracies do not really function as democracies. They can not because the people have no executive or legislative power. As a result, politicians gradually accumulate more power and the people feel gradually more alienated. Over time, this imbalance is explosive.
Unfortunately, the “explosion-implosion” of political systems always catch the elites by surprise. It happened to the Czar, to the French King, to the English King in the US, and on and on.
The time to act is now. We need to do what the Swiss did in the 1800s; peacefully pressure, and pressure and pressure politicians until they relent, until in all our countries we have, at least what the Swiss have. We can not give in or give up, we need direct democracy urgently. Populisms are the symptoms, the illness is non-functioning representative democracies.