The Swiss do it better or, why direct democracy is not enough. Part II.

Swiss direct democracy should not exist. Switzerland should not be a stable country either, but it is the most advanced democracy and the most stable country.

If we look at Switzerland past the cliches, the foolish comments about the “crazy system where the people are voting themselves to exhaustion”, we see the most politically advanced country in the World.

Let us look at the facts on the ground.

Switzerland has all the elements that in other countries create serious political problems; they have founding peoples who speak different languages, practice different religions and have different cultures. They even have different temperaments.

The Swiss have made their country the most democratic and stable country on Earth. It is also the most prosperous too, with the best universal health care, etc.

Switzerland is the most democratic because “democracy” means “government by the people”, not by the representatives of the people. No other people come close to the Swiss in actual people’s power.

To make matters even more difficult for the Swiss, the founding peoples of Switzerland had a history of being at war with each other.

As you probably know, the Swiss practice direct democracy; a huge advance over representative democracy. But the Swiss realized direct democracy would not be enough. They also had to accommodate the cultural and linguistic differences among the people living in different areas of Switzerland.

The Swiss saw that Swiss German-speakers made up almost two thirds of the population of the country, French-speakers one quarter, Italian-speakers 8% and Romansh-speakers a tiny 0.5%. They had to figure out a way to prevent Switzerland from becoming a country were the German-speaking majority became so dominant that the other groups would feel oppressed or discriminated; as you know it happens in other countries.

One smart thing the Swiss did is se up Switzerland as a federal nation; a union of free states.

Another good move was to separate cultural-language identity from territorial administration.

Most other countries, including federations, with several historical cultures, do the opposite; they organize the country around language and culture. In those countries each group has its own territorial administration; they never make the arrangement work very well. Friction, separatist movements, even terror, are never too far.

Had Switzerland done the same as most other countries, the country would have four cantons; a huge (compared to the others) German-Speaking canton of 5.5 million people, a mid-size French-Speaking Canton of 2.1 million, one small Italian-Speaking canton of 0.5 million people, and one tiny Romansh-speaking canton of 50 000 people.

It is easy to see how a huge German-speaking canton, dwarfing the rest, could find it hard to resist making its power prevail over the others. If that happened friction and resentment would quickly appear.

But the Swiss did not do that. What they did is divide Switzerland into 26 cantons; 17 German-speaking, 4 French-speaking, two Italian-speaking and a few bilingual and even trilingual cantons.

The Swiss also have a flexible system of Cantons; it has happened that a group has become a canton because they were not happy in their old canton

Another clever move by the Swiss was not to have one national language, official or otherwise. The Swiss made the languages of the four founding peoples official languages; German, French, Italian and Romansh are all official languages of the national federal government. Note than only 0.5% of the Swiss speak Romansh, yet their language is official language.

By doing all those things, the Swiss succeed at finding harmony among their founding cultures. Many other federal or unitary nations, such as Canada, the US, Germany, Australia, France, Spain, etc., have not.

Those are great nations in many other respects, but they have not been able to achieve the harmony the Swiss have achieved. The Swiss have done away with the “majority-minority” concept. They did it by dividing the territory occupied by German-speakers and French-speakers into many cantons. It is almost as if the Swiss system turns every group into a minority.

Swiss cantons are small, but each is very autonomous, almost another country within Switzerland. Each Swiss canton has far more autonomy than the often much larger states in the US or the Canadian provinces.

The Swiss have also succeeded at making their nation’s identity independent of language and culture. By doing this they keep at bay the “tribal impulse” humans have.

I believe it is essential to understand what the Swiss have done. All countries need direct democracy, but countries with more than one founding culture also need to look at other aspects of the Swiss system which complement direct democracy.


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