The Design of Direct Democracy

Preliminary basis for assessing sub-optimal procedures of citizenlawmaking

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1. Direct democracy as a process of global comparison and exchange

Using international comparisons in order to gain information that can be used to improve direct-democratic procedures is nothing new. It can be shown that the history of direct democracy in Europe and in the USA since its beginnings in the states of New England in the 17th/18th centuries is the history of a unique trans-Atlantic and intra-European process of exchange and comparison.2 Modern Swiss direct democracy owes a great deal to the French Revolution and to the Girondist Marie Jean Condorcet in general and to the German philosopher Friedrich Albert Lange in particular.

If one wishes to optimize the qualities of direct democratic procedures, one has first to define them. On the one hand, we can look at the historical statements of those who can be considered to be the pioneers of modern direct democracy in Switzerland and in the United States. But in seeking to discover what added value direct democracy can deliver, we can also take the lead from the critique of an exclusively parliamentary democracy, which needs to be complemented and extended – and thus in practice ‘democratized’ – by elements of direct democracy.

Lange, in his commentary on the adoption of the new constitution in the canton of Zurich in April 1869 – at the time the most direct-democratic constitution in the world – named the "extraordinarily deep dissatisfaction with the crass deficiencies of the representative system" as the most significant cause of that "convulsion of the emotions" which had "precipitated the principle of direct democracy, like a crystal from a saturated solution" (Der Landbote, Winterthur 20.4.1869; subsequent quotes all taken from Gross/Klages 1996).

2. The claims/expectations of Direct Democracy

• "The decisive control and use of political power should be transferred from the hands of the few onto the broad shoulders of the many";

• "Republican life depends on the continuous steady balancing of opposing tendencies";

• "The people should acquire wider political knowledge and opinions";

• "The authorities, statesmen and representatives will try much harder to acquaint ordinary people with their thoughts and convictions";

• "The people will approach them with the clear and genuine expression of their needs and preferences";

• "The moral-spiritual-intellectual life of the people" should be stimulated by "being deeply involved with the great issues of the common public weal" (Der Landbote, 22.2.1868: p.273);

• "We are taking into our own hands the decisions which affect the destiny of our country; in some way or other we wish to have the final word on these matters" (Der Gruetlianer, Bern, 15.7.1868: p.274);

• "The will of the people and the spirit of the times, the understanding of the common man and the great thoughts of the statesman should be peacefully negotiated and reconciled";

• "The creation of popular rule in happy union with representation" (Der Landbote, 17.12.1868: p.274).

The spokesmen of what was in effect a democratic revolution and which between 1867 and 1869 put a system of direct democracy in place of the former liberal rule in the canton of Zurich identified two fundamental elements of "the heart of the democratic movement":

Firstly: "In our view [the heart of the movement] consists in the people being able by constitutional means to win respect for its own faculty of judgment, which the elected representatives have arrogantly and bluntly denied it on all too many occasions" (Der Landbote, 1.3.1868: p.279).

Secondly: "We protest against the debasement and belittlement of the people of Zurich, which consists in their being declared incompetent to recognize true progress and to make the necessary sacrifices [to achieve it]. We see in this false evaluation of the people the main seeds of the present movement" (Der Landbote, 8.12.1868: p.279).

What is here expressed as expectations and hopes, together with the demand for direct democracy, can be translated into modern political language as the demand for more public reflectiveness, more debate, more public meetings, more shared reflection, more opportunities for the public to work on issues, more political accommodation and more balance, more power for all and less power for a select few, a better balance and finer distribution of power, in short: more public debate and more deliberation, less highhandedness, greater legitimacy through the effort to persuade (rather than dictate) and through respect for people’s ability to discern and to reach considered judgments. When John S. Dryzek wrote that "around 1990" there had been a "deliberative turn" in democratic theory, one might be forgiven for concluding – in view of the debates on direct democracy in Switzerland and the pioneering direct-democratic states of the USA over a hundred years ago – that Dryzek was a whole century out in his reckoning. (Dryzek 2000).

3. The qualities and achievements of Direct Democracy

Against the background of the motives, critique and aims of that movement which can be considered the pioneer of direct democracy in Switzerland, and of the experiences with direct democracy in Switzerland since then, the following qualitative characteristics can be distinguished as the products of a qualitatively well designed direct democracy:

• DD makes politics more communicative. Legitimacy has to be created, confirmed or challenged by communication.

• DD forces public discussion of points of view and differences of opinion which otherwise tend to be ignored or suppressed.

• DD gives minorities which have less than adequate or no representation in parliament the right to be heard in public in a legitimate way.

• DD enables a finer distribution of political power and allows no-one the privilege of possessing so much power that he/she is not required to modify their views from time to time.

If we distinguish the individual, the societal and the institutional levels from each other, then in a well organized direct democracy we can assign the following performance expectations or qualities to each level:  (Table 1) ...........

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