Direct democracy is the process by which the public make governmental decisions themselves, instead of entrusting elected representatives with that task. It can take a variety of forms, but the primary ones are referenda, citizens’ initiatives and town hall meetings. In this essay, I will consider the benefits of what is considered by some to be the ‘purest’ form of democratic government. This topic is particularly relevant at a time in which trust in existing systems of representative democracy is at an unprecedented low, and pressure for this to be reflected in constitutional changes is growing. For example, the integration of ‘e-Petitions’ into the law-making process has occurred in several countries.
A common complaint about representative democracy is that it creates a distant class of lawmakers who will often collude with vested interests, or become so detached from the lives of the general public, that they will make decisions that the public do not support. This is only possible because of the exclusivity that inevitably arises around a relatively small number of representatives. By contrast, such corruption of decision-making is impossible if every citizen is an equally powerful participant in the process. There is simply no better way of making the debate about an issue and the thinking about a solution more transparent than throwing it open to every citizen.
Consequently, if the public sense their complete control over a decision, they are more likely to engage with it and improve their understanding surrounding the matter. That’s why, during the 2011 referendum using the Alternative Vote in UK parliamentary elections, millions of people who had otherwise never heard of electoral reform participated in a national debate on one of the most fundamental issues that shape our democracy. There are numerous benefits to having higher public awareness and better understanding of political topics. Where there is generalised ignorance surrounding a political question, political figures are usually unable and unwilling to implement good policy.
Compare political debate in the US and the UK on drugs, for example, and it is clear why this is the case. In the US, several state-wide referenda have legalised certain drugs, a pragmatic approach resulting in a reduction in the harm these drugs have caused to users and to society. Whereas British politicians cannot question the hardline ‘war on drugs’ consensus and maintain credibility. It could be argued that this is because US citizens have accepted responsibility for making informed decisions on drugs policy while the British have not. Of course, the counterargument would be that direct democracy could place more power in the hands of an often ill-informed citizenry, and empowerment and education are not guaranteed to support each other.
Speaking of pragmatism, a lack of political constriction is a further advantage of direct democracy. A typical politician does not enjoy freedom simply to represent his or her constituents. The UK prime minister must have the support of their constituents, their constituency party, their parliamentary party, the national membership of their party and a majority of the House of Commons, together with the confidence of much of the media and business constituency. The potential for conflict between these groups is self-evident, and it is similar for other politicians.
When a voter participates in a referendum, they have none of these issues. They can vote however they see fit, knowing that they have no ‘party line’ to toe, no media scrutiny of their actions, and no views of constituents to balance. Voters are entirely free to vote according to the facts at hand. The removal of politicians from politics has massive theoretical potential to shift the emphasis on government from what is possible under the balance of power between groups to what is best for the country. However, this depends on the assumption that voters’ actions are not shaped by conflicting pressures: are we all not low-level politicians in one way or another? Nevertheless, the possible reduction of conflicting interests in politics is one of the biggest advantages of direct democracy.
There is an even greater advantage though. That is the creation of what has been termed ‘pick and mix policy’. For under representative democracy, voters must select a person (or more usually, party) that is the best match for their opinions and values. Unsurprisingly, no representative can be a perfect match, so all voters end up voting for a package that contains some ideas they dislike. A good metaphor for this is buying a bag of Revels chocolates, knowing that there will be some annoying chewy caramel chocolates in the bag, but tolerating them because one likes the other chocolates. Under a system of direct democracy, we can choose a Revels bag with no caramel chocolates in it. Voters are able to support all the policies that they wish, and reject all that they are opposed to. That would mark an end to the tricky philosophical and political dilemmas that so many are faced with as they struggle to find a ‘good fit’, or in the more depressive mood that pervades modern politics, ‘pick the best of a bad bunch’.
This concept offers fertile ground for speculation. If direct democracy had existed, or been further reaching, in the UK, would much of the social liberalisation of the 1960s have ever happened? Would the privatisation programme of the 1980s and 90s have taken place? Direct democracy by definition gives more power to the public but the question is whether that is a good thing in itself. And this depends on the perspective from which such a question is asked.
Democratic engagement in most representative democracies is falling just as the populace is becoming better informed than ever. Though opinion is divided as to how well educated we all are relative to our counterparts in the early and mid-20th century, there is no denying that the growth and evolution of the media has given us a better insight into the factors that shape our politics than ever. 24 hour news channels inform us of world events as they happen, whilst the ubiquity of smartphones and social media gives us a world of information at our fingertips. We are just as keen to shape the world around us as our forefathers, but we feel less able to. Is this because representative democracy lacks the speed and interactivity that we have come to expect elsewhere?
Drawing on this and points raised previously, one can see public pressure for more direct democracy. Single issue campaigns are flourishing while political parties struggle to function with tiny memberships. In a world of referenda, electronic debates and petitions, determined activists would be able to propose legislative changes as issues arose, rather than having to press for support in line with electoral cycles which tend to ‘crowd out’ such matters. For example, the issue of noise pollution from airports may be important to a very small proportion of the electorate, but the only time campaigners may be able to influence MPs, during an election, is when most talk is of the economy or public services. However, a citizens’ initiative on noise pollution regulations would provide an opportunity for both sides to argue a case and reach a clear conclusion without having to battle for recognition of the issue.
In conclusion, direct democracy could engage and encourage the education of the public; avoid the potential conflicts of interest that politicians face; enable voters to choose the exact policy platform that they desire; enhance transparency; and make corruption more difficult. It is certainly a better principle means of allowing a nation or community to govern itself with a fair distribution of power. Though there are many weaknesses compared to the system of representative democracy, this does not mean that the hybridisation of the systems, which is taking place in several parts of the world, cannot offer many of the advantages that I have outlined above.
Empowering voters to trigger parliamentary debates via petitions on the Gov.uk website is just one way in which the public can set the agenda and raise issues that may be overlooked. Social media gives us a direct line to our representatives that is almost revolutionary in bridging the gap between the ‘people’ and ‘power’. We are witnessing a cultural and constitutional shift towards aspects of direct democracy, and the potential benefit is substantial.
As a form of government, there are two types of democracy (1) pure or direct, and (2) representative or indirect.
When the people themselves directly express their will on public affairs, the type of government is called pure or direct democracy.
The people formulate and express their will in a mass meeting and they assemble for this purpose as often as required. In the small City-States of ancient Greece and Rome all adult male citizens were expected to meet together in the Assembly—the Ecclesia of Athens, the Commitia of Rome.
Pure democracy had not been confined to the ancient world. Its surviving relics are found today in the Swiss landsgemeinde or popular legislature. There were twenty- six landsgemeinden in the middle of the eighteenth century; today, there are only five, and one of them has been confined to elective functions.
Image source: nationalvanguard.org
On a Sunday in April or May the adult male citizens in the Canton assemble to consider in full open-air meetings the governmental affairs of the Canton. At such meetings new laws are agreed upon and old laws changed, taxes levied, budgets adopted and officials chosen.
But pure or direct democracy can exist and function only in small States with a limited, homogeneous population where people can conveniently meet and deliberate together. In large and complex societies, when the number of the people is too large and the area of the State is too extensive, direct democracy is impracticable.
Even the Swiss landsgemeinde is cantonal and nowhere is it associated with the national government. This institution has been commended by some writers with great enthusiasm, but a close acquaintance with its actual working produces a very different effect.
“It would be naive,” says Rappard, a Swiss scholar, “to believe that even a small community of a few thousand well-trained citizens could, under the complex conditions of the twentieth century, effectively govern itself by means of such an ephemeral legislative assembly.
One might as well expect a football crowd, assembled for a few hours in a stadium, to make itself responsible for the establishment of an academic curriculum or for the drafting of a measure of social insurance.”
Direct democracy now assumes the form of the referendum and the popular initiative, and they have long been familiar in Switzerland and the United States. After the First World War they made an appearance in Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Ireland and even in Soviet Russia.
They were deleted from the Irish Constitution in 1928, and were lying dormant for thirteen years in Germany when Hitler struck down the Weimer Constitution.
The 1936 Constitution of U.S.S.R. empowered the Presidium to submit, on its own initiative, legislative measures and other important matters to popular vote and hold a referendum.
The 1977 Constitution abolished it, but substituted that referendum might be invoked as a last resort if both the Houses failed to reach agreement on a legislative measure for the second time after its reference to the Conciliation Committee.
In U.S.A. direct legislation is obtainable only in eleven States, most of them in the west. Popular or direct legislation, as Sait remarks, “is little more than a fad outside of Switzerland, where unique conditions prevail.”
In Switzerland direct legislation has a natural growth or, as Bryce says, it is “racy of the soil. There are institutions which, like plants, flourish only on their hillside and under their own sunshine.”
Indirect or Representative Democracy:
The prevailing system of democracy is indirect or representative. The will of the State is formulated and expressed not directly by the people themselves, but by their representatives to whom they delegate the power of discussion and decision making.
They are referred to as representatives and this type of government as representative democracy. The representatives are periodically elected by the people. John Stuart Mill defines indirect or representative democracy as one in which “the whole people or some numerous portions of them, exercise the governing power through deputies periodically elected by themselves.”
In a representative democracy the ultimate source of authority remains with the people. But it draws a distinction between the possession of authority which resides in the electorate and its exercise, which is by the elected representatives.
Hobhouse says, “Democracy means or may mean, two things which, though allied in idea, are not necessarily found together in practice, viz., (i) direct participation of the mass of ordinary citizens in the public life of the community, (ii) ultimate popular sovereignty.”
The voters elect the representatives for a number of years and after the expiry of their term, they report back to their masters, the electors. The electors judge them by their deeds and determine whether or not they should repose their trust in them for the next term.
If they prefer to discontinue with them, they would do so by electing new representatives. Representative democracy guarantees, in other terms, a general harmony of purpose between government and the governed by reconciling effective authority and political freedom.
It must, however, be noted that voters who have returned their representatives in a majority and placed them in office to make a policy and run the government, must not exert undue pressure, personal or regional, on them for the fulfilments of their own ends.
To pressurize them for gaining personal and selfish advantages and benefits is a democratic sin which deserves no coordination for it demoralises the citizens and detracts democratic ideals.
A degree of pressure is permissible to remind representatives of their constituents’ sentiments, but it must not get out of hand. The law-makers and administrators have to be able to give reasoned consideration to policies and programmes, and they cannot be stampeded by regional or group clamour of the moment.
Indeed, if superior men are selected for office, then they should be allowed to exercise their knowledge and intelligence in an atmosphere of calm and objectivity.
After World War I a good deal of dissatisfaction was expressed against the working of representative democracy, and devices of popular control, the referendum, the initiative and recall, were introduced by some of the States.
These devices aimed at transferring from the representatives to the people themselves the right to have the final verdict over legislative and administrative matters and to recall from office those representatives who did not perform their duties diligently, honestly, or in accordance with the wishes of the people.
But the dominant verdict has proved hostile to these direct devices of popular control and the representative institutions continue to be instruments of democracy.