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Varieties of direct democracy: mediated versus unmediated forms

Many of these criticisms of direct policy voting are based on the idea that it dispenses with mediating institutions such as parties, and with the rules and procedures that, for example, guide legislative debate. This removes the constraints that produce compromise and stability and overstrains the capacity of citizens to make good decisions by, in effect, placing them in a vacuum. In turn, this promotes decisional instability by favouring the emergence of a new majority concerned to correct the mistakes, or counter the imbalances produced by the previous one.

Certainly, the idea of unmediated voting that ‘lets the people speak’ is one that has inspired many supporters of direct democracy, who would be very unhappy to think that intermediaries like political parties were needed to guarantee the quality of preferences and end decisions. Equally clearly, their ideal of doing away with political structures opens itself to many of the criticisms made above. In most countries and popular consultations, policy voting is not unmediated: parties and other groups participate and courts, governments and legislatures may all decide the wording of questions, lay down rules for the conduct of the campaign and even take sides in the referendum campaign.

All this underlines the point that direct democracy is as synonymous with party and other mediation as with a lack of it. Rules and procedural constraints may be more or less present in referendums and initiatives, but are never entirely absent. Therefore, insofar as the criticisms in Table 1.1 are focused on unmediated direct democracy, they are possibly valid - but for that form of direct democracy only, not for direct democracy as such.

Conceptually, the same point may be made by considering the base definition of direct democracy - which has surely to be the electorate voting on questions that, in traditional representative democracy, parliament votes on. How the vote is held clearly affects the concrete form that a particular direct democracy takes. But it is clear that both mediated and unmediated forms fall under the definition. The only requirement of direct democracy is that the people vote on individual

Different kinds of direct democracy

Figure 1.1 Different kinds of direct democracy

policies. How they organize themselves to vote does not affect the fact that this is direct democracy.

Looking at the extent of party mediation under various forms of direct democracy cautions us against identifying it exclusively with an unmediated form. This is shown in Figure 1.1.

Even in ancient Athens, crude party organizations were present in the form of political clubs (Bonner 1967: 45, 61): they were the most effective way for statesmen like Pericles and Demosthenes to ensure their majority in the Assembly and thus maintain stability and continuity in public policy - the functions of the political party in all ages.

This contrasts with the idealized Rousseauesque account (Rousseau 1762/1993) where the popular will has to be unmediated to be pure. California is the modern example that approaches closest to unmediated direct policy voting. But even there, parties and party-affiliated groups intervene. Lupia and Johnson (2001: 191-210) argue that this is necessary for ‘competent voting’ and point out that even in California voters are pretty adept at spotting which groups support which side and making inferences from this about the political import of proposals. Other American states see greater party intervention on important proposals (Magleby 1984: 88, 94), a tendency that becomes the norm in countries like Italy and Switzerland.

All this is to make the obvious point that procedural rules are necessary for votes, even popular votes, to be held. We would not expect a representative democracy to function without a constitution (written or unwritten), presiding officers, rules of procedure and debate. No more should we expect a direct democracy to do so. Just as representative democracies may have more or less regulation of these matters, so may direct democracies. To California, with its relative absence of detailed regulation of referendum campaigns, we can contrast Quebec, with a whole branch of law devoted to the few referendums that have been held, but regulating them in detail (see also Geissel in this volume).

Most criticisms in Table 1.1 apply particularly or exclusively to unmediated and relatively unregulated forms of popular policy voting. As such, they may have a high degree of validity. However, the solution under direct democracy as under representative democracy is not to abandon it altogether, but to strengthen procedures in order to deal with these dangers, and to encourage mediation rather than discourage it. This may put off many advocates of participatory or discursive democracy who wish to let the people speak unmediated. But if direct democracy consists in deciding individual policies through popular votes, mediation is quite consistent with it.

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