Direct democracy has much to offer, especially for those who are searching for real democracy as an alternative to or an improvement of present political systems. Direct democracy empowers people even more than mechanisms of participatory democracy like deliberative polls, citizens’ juries, and participatory budgeting. In contrast to participative democracy, which remains in a fundamental way dependent on the goodwill of the representative institutions, direct democracy gives citizens their own independent political power. Well-designed initiative and referendum rights empower citizens and enable them to exercise sovereignty and control over their representatives in government and parliament.
Prejudices against direct democracy are widespread, especially with regard to size (prejudice: direct democracy is possible only in small political communities) and competence (prejudice: ordinary people are politically incompetent). In addition, direct democracy is often associated with totalitarianism, frequently still with Hitler and Nazi-Germany. Understandably, negative imagination of (direct) democracy is nourished by those who are afraid of losing power and status through empowerment of the people (democratisation). In fact, the stigmatisation of democracy is as old as democracy itself.
Theory and history of democracy have largely sidelined (forgotten, repressed, dismissed, belittled, idiosyncratized) direct democracy. This is bound to change with the rise of direct democracy, which has become increasingly important while more and more people have been losing trust in purely representative democracy.
Direct democracy provides citizens with necessary instruments that can be used to make the world a better place for everyone. But the instruments as such are no guarantee for good decisions, rather the outcome depends on the use people are making of direct democracy and on the implementation of their decisions. In addition, we are not starting from a level playing field, but from a situation where societies, from the local to the global level, are characterized by great imbalances of power and resources between the groups that constitute them. Groups with more power resources are better equipped to promote their particular interests. However, as citizens we cannot leave decision-making to the politicians alone, if we want to be free. Direct democracy is necessary but not sufficient to create a society of free and equal individuals, which is obviously a never-ending process.
About the author
Rolf Buechi grew up in Switzerland and now lives in Helsinki, Finland. He has authored and co-authored a number of books and articles on direct democracy. He developed a general typology of popular vote procedures, which is also used by The Navigator to Direct Democracy.
Guidebook to Direct Democracy
Kohti osallistavaa demokratiaa (Towards activating democracy)
Opas suoraan demokratiaan (A Finnish version of the Guidebook)