Direct democracy, when done well, can empower the people and bring greater stability to a representative system.
Democracy, like all good things, should be restricted to moderate doses. This has been the dogma of democracy’s proponents for as long as the concept has existed. American Founding Father John Adams coined the phrase “tyranny of the majority” to describe democracy’s potential to degenerate into mob-rule; under representative democracy, a system designed to ensure the consent of the governed without risking a collapse into mob-rule, Europe has seen over half a century of peace and prosperity. Any changes that might upset this stability are rightly viewed with suspicion. Nonetheless, an abundance of referendums in recent years has brought the question of direct democracy back onto the table.
Direct democracy means voters make policy decisions themselves, rather than deferring to a representative. There are no countries that rely on pure direct democracy, but a number attempt to incorporate direct democracy into a representative system. The most commonly used tool of direct democracy is the referendum or plebiscite. The two political entities which make the greatest use of referendums, and have the most extensive systems of direct democracy today, are Switzerland and California. These two examples provide a stark contrast: whilst Swiss democracy is lauded worldwide, Californian democracy tends to be regarded as a bit of a disaster.
Switzerland adopted direct democracy in the 1870s, in the aftermath of a civil war between rival religious groups. Under the Swiss system, citizens can launch a “popular initiative” with the support of 100,000 signatories, such as the recent initiative to introduce a universal basic income. Citizens also have a right of veto: a referendum can be called to strike down a piece of legislation if 50,000 signatures are obtained within three months of the bill passing. Finally, any proposed changes to the Swiss constitution must first be approved by referendum.
Californian direct democracy emerged in the early 1900s as a reaction to cronyism; Californians wanted a means to take back control of their government from wealthy, politically connected businessmen. America’s most populous state has a very similar system to Switzerland: citizens can call referendums on initiatives or on laws already passed, and must first obtain just over 365,000 signatures (5% of the most recent gubernatorial vote). All amendments to California’s constitution are also subject to referendums.
One would expect frequent referendums to lead to political instability, and yet Switzerland’s direct democracy is credited with achieving the exact opposite. Having the power to veto and propose legislation makes it harder for Swiss citizens to blame the government for their ills. The government’s inability to make constitutional changes without popular consent keeps ultimate power in the hands of the electorate. Governments are hesitant to introduce potentially unpopular legislation because they dread “Referendumsdrohung”, the threat of a referendum. When citizens feel politically empowered, they are less likely to turn to protestation, violence or extremism; the Swiss system ensures exceptional stability by giving citizens a great degree of power to check and steer their government.
So what went wrong in California? California is famed for its financial difficulties, which have been made much worse by various initiatives; citizens tend to vote in favour of higher spending but against tax rises, making it impossible to balance the budget. While the Swiss are known for their strong fiscal conservatism, Californians are more liberal with the public purse. Swiss conservatism goes deeper: whilst most initiatives in Switzerland fail to pass, Californians are more open to change. The major difference between Californian and Swiss direct democracy seems to be one of attitudes: the Swiss are much more prudent and cautious, and tend to favour the status quo.
In fairness, the Californian system has seen substantial reform in recent years: a hearing process was introduced to allow initiatives to be discussed and amended before they go to the ballot, campaign funding has been made more transparent, and it has become easier to withdraw an initiative. Despite its frustrations, popular support for direct democracy is high: even before the recent reforms, a majority of voters said they were satisfied with the initiative system and believed that Californian voters made better decisions than their elected officials. Most political scientists agree that the initiative system means California’s policies highly accord with public opinion; the state’s citizens thus have less cause to be upset with general policy direction.
Like all tools, direct democracy can be used for good or ill; the abuse of initiatives by imprudent Californians is not an argument against the system per se. The ability of citizens to veto legislation has proven much less controversial than their ability to propose it. A veto system provides an extra check on government, and helps to prevent representatives going back on their manifesto promises. I would strongly welcome such a system in the UK.
Initiatives are harder to reconcile with representative democracy; they seem to function in Switzerland because of the population’s natural conservatism, a stance I would venture to suggest is shared by the British. In these times of widespread political disillusionment and the alienation of voters from their representatives, direct democracy can provide a means to rejuvenate politics, reduce apathy and empower the average voter. What are we waiting for?