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Home arrow Political science arrow Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?

I New and old forms of (direct) democracy

Implementing popular preferences. Is direct democracy the answer?

Ian Budge


It is perhaps paradoxical, in discussing democratic innovations, to consider procedures that were most fully realized 2,500 years ago. Direct voting on all questions of public policy by all citizens was, in fact, the form in which democracy first emerged in the fifth century BC among the Greeks - particularly exemplified by the way it was practised in the city-state of Athens. So far as the Greeks and the rest of the Ancient World were concerned, this was democracy. Other regimes that limited popular policy control were aristocracies, oligarchies or tyrannies. Despite its antiquity, however, the idea that citizens should debate and decide policy directly is still fiercely controversial. Any extension of popular powers in this direction is among the most radical of the changes considered in this book.

Many critics such as Mill (1861/1910), Schumpeter (1962), Sartori (1987) and perhaps most eloquently James Madison (1787-8/1911) have criticized this kind of democracy for its instability and fickleness. Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War has been attributed to popular susceptibility to demagogic appeals. It is not clear, however, whether any other system of decision making would have done better, and Sparta’s aristocratic rulers proved totally incompetent in maintaining control after their victory over Athens.

These debates about the quality of ancient democracy have a strong modern resonance - indeed the arguments for and against direct democracy have hardly changed from then till now. This is owing to the fact that democracy as such can hardly be conceived in other terms than as a system that guarantees the translation of popular preferences into public policy. To put it more exactly (Saward 1998: 51) ‘democracy ... is: a necessary correspondence between acts of government and the equally weighted felt interests of citizens with respect to those acts’ (see also May 1978). It is hard to conceive of a more effective way of implementing this correspondence than allowing all citizens to vote on public policy in line with their felt interests. Institutionalizing such direct policy voting then makes popular approval of policy necessary, as required by the definition. Anything less detracts not just from direct democracy, but - according to its supporters - from democracy itself.

It is necessary to stress this point in order to appreciate the strong moral imperative that gives movements for direct democracy their driving force. Unlike the incremental reforms and technical modifications discussed elsewhere in this book, the impetus behind direct democracy comes not primarily from a concern for technological or other improvement of existing forms, but from moral passion. If you are a true democrat, you must in the end be a direct democrat. Anything less is a sell-out.

Most critics and opponents of direct democracy actually accept that it constitutes the ideal embodiment of democracy. John Stuart Mill is quite typical here. In Representative Government (1861/1910: 216-18), he accepts that ‘the ideally best form of government is that in which the ... supreme ... power ... is vested in the ... community; every citizen ... having a voice’. But he then dismisses the possibility of direct democracy on grounds of practicability - in a single sentence! ‘But all cannot, in a community exceeding a single small town, participate personally .’. Hence, we need to have representative government.

Mill ignores Switzerland, which, as Kriesi’s chapter explains, even then had federal referendums. This is fairly typical of arguments against direct democracy: broad assertions are made that, on closer examination, turn out to be controvertible, to say the least, but which hardly ever are examined closely. It is this that renders Kriesi’s chapter, as well as his previous work (Kriesi 2005) particularly valuable, as he does closely analyse the workings of the most advanced direct democracy in the world today, in light of the general theoretical points that have been made about it (see also Geissel in this volume).

Most critics of direct democracy are more negative than Mill. While accepting that it is indeed, in principle, the most complete embodiment of democracy, they argue against it on grounds of its accompanying dangers: the tyranny and instability of popular majorities; the inability of the populace to make wise decisions (better leave decisions on policy to the better educated or to bigger stakeholders); even, in the case of the Marxist and neo-Marxist left, the inability of citizens to see where their real interests lie, or to formulate their true preferences (false consciousness). Such criticisms of popular participation rapidly acquire a general anti-democratic flavour, however, because of the close connection between direct democracy and democracy as such. If citizens are incapable of making wise policy decisions, why should they even be allowed to choose the decision makers, as they are underrepresentative forms? Most critics are, of course, basically arguing for some kind of system that balances popular participation with expertise. But it is hard to keep blunderbuss assertions about popular incapacity from being generalized, as we shall see below.

While the arguments about direct democracy have hardly changed over the millennia, they should have changed - if only to take cognizance of modern developments that have made the contrast with representative forms less sharp. After the defeat of popular attempts to take over power in the medieval communes, direct democracy languished as a concrete political arrangement. When democracy re-emerged as a practical aspiration in the nation-states of the nineteenth century, it took a representative form, where an elected parliament rather than the people directly debated and decided policy.

The emergence of political parties, however (which from the late nineteenth century dominated both general elections and legislative and executive bodies), brought representative democracy closer to direct popular policy voting, though in a new form. Parties competed by offering alternative policy programmes (packages of policies) to the electorate. Voters could choose the programme they preferred overall and express their choice by voting for the party that supported it. Party discipline then ensured that its representatives in parliament would support the package.

This transformation of representative democracy into party democracy gave the initiative to parties in formulating the policy alternatives for which electors voted. Often these were regarded as too narrow or even indistinguishable from each other, either because parties had been corrupted and bought by sectional interests (as asserted by the American Progressives in the early twentieth century) or because they were embedded in the capitalist system to an extent that precluded them from offering truly radical alternatives (according to neo-Marxist and Green critics of the late twentieth century). The rise of new and local issues often made the broad packages offered by parties seem inadequate or insensitive to concerns felt by particular groups of citizens. Ecological issues, in particular, remained off the main agenda.

Under these circumstances, an obvious solution to the stultifying effects of party control and elite dominance seemed again to be direct popular voting on policy, with increasing emphasis on the power to initiate such a vote if a sufficient body of opinion wanted it.

Does direct democracy provide a solution for the current democratic malaise? In this chapter we first of all examine arguments for and against direct democracy. Arguments for are powered by the fact that the best way to ensure democracy, that is ‘a necessary correspondence between acts of governance and the equally weighted felt interests of citizens with respect to these acts’ (Saward 1998: 51), is direct popular voting on each policy. Arguments against stem from distrust of what popular majorities might do, especially to unpopular minorities such as Jews, Gypsies, Muslims or immigrants. This discussion then forces us to examine the various kinds of direct democracy on offer, contrasting, in particular, unmediated with mediated forms (see also Geissel in this volume). Contrary to many preconceptions, direct popular policy voting does not necessarily involve sweeping away of parties and parliaments, though the desire to do so is often a powerful motivating force for advocates of ‘people power’.

The general conclusion drawn in this chapter, and supported by Kriesi’s stress on the guidance provided to popular voting in Switzerland by parties and other institutions, is that many of the critical arguments against direct democracy are valid against its unmediated forms, but not against its mediated forms. The latter do give a more direct and unhampered expression to the popular will than representative democracy, while still providing procedural safeguards for minorities. We shall consider the implications of this position in our conclusions. One of them is that the contrast between modern forms of direct and representative democracy is overdrawn, as the latter usually involves voting on party policy packages as well as on candidates and government competence. This may pave the way for a new democratic synthesis that combines direct policy elections (that is, initiatives and referendums) with general elections in the areas that are appropriate for them - not unlike modern Swiss practice as described by Kriesi.

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