Debates on direct democracy: old and new

Flag ES [ES] Debates sobre democracia directa: antiguos y recientes

Direct democracy is experiencing a new surge in popularity in Europe and across the world. Today there is a demand for introducing direct democracy not only at the level of the individual nation state, but also at the transnational European level. In different times and at different places direct democracy has had its moments like in revolutionary France in 1792-3, in Switzerland in 1831 and the 1860s, in France, Italy, UK, USA at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, in Uruguay before and after military dictatorship, after the Cold war in Germany and Eastern Europe, and today also in Latin America and Asia.

At whatever time and place direct democracy has been going up, it has been resisted on the same old grounds by those in power and their supporters. Since the beginnings of modern democracy, times and circumstances have changed. Modern democracy began as an idea (remember Jean-Jacques Rousseau), but today we can look back on 200 years of practical experience with it. Yet even today many of the debates on direct democracy appear as variations and reformulations in a long repetitive cycle of the same arguments against it. Some of them have been used against democracy and against the extension of the male franchise, as well as against equal political rights for women.

This “old debate” is a debate for and against direct democracy of which many instances can be named: the Federalist Papers (1787/88), the debates in Switzerland in 1831, in the 1860s and early 1970s, Karl Kautsky’s book Parlamentarismus und Demokratie (1893 (1911)), the many debates around 1900 in Europe, which Pierre Rosanvallon called “le moment Suisse”, the debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s, and countless reports and articles up till today (for an instructive recent article against direct democracy see Peter Kellner, Down with people power, in: Prospect 4 July 2009).

Beyond this “old debate” for and against direct democracy, a “new debate” is emerging. It starts from the conclusion that direct democracy is a necessary complement to indirect democracy. This new debate does not delve any longer into pros and cons, but asks instead how to make direct democracy efficient, how to design instruments that enhance citizenship instead of crowding it out.

In the following I will first deal with two important and recurrent argumentations against direct democracy: a) the image of the “incompetent citizen”, and b) the idea that direct democracy is specially prone to manipulation and demagoguery. Secondly I try to put the debates on direct democracy into a historical perspective and to enter into the new debate which is focussing on how to make direct democracy effective.

The image of the “incompetent citizen”

“(…) the mass of the citizens is as narrow-minded as it is easily seduced, on the one hand tending to block troublesome innovations as in Switzerland, on the other hand only too ready to be put before the carriage of demagogues like Hitler.”
Reinhard, Wolfgang. 1999. Geschichte der Staatsgewalt. Munich. C.H. Beck, p. 435.

“Most people are not able to form sound opinions. They accept without question what the most powerful newspaper of our country says.”
Markku Myllykangas, lecturer, Kuopio University; letter to the editor, Helsingin Sanomat 2005 (Finland)

The four practical objections raised by Dr. Signorel in considering the Referendum for France are equally applicable to Britain. (a) The masses have no sufficient leisure to carry out direct legislation; (b) they have not the requisite knowledge; (c) the Referendum would soon tire out the electors; (d) it would not produce the results hoped for. We may also close with a sentence uttered by Gambetta in 1870, in his famous speech of April 5, against the plebiscite: “The sovereignty of the people exists, is recognized, is practised in any country only when the Parliament elected by the votes of all the citizens possesses the full right of guidance and the final word in the treatment of political affairs”.
Jane T. Stoddart.1910. Against the Referendum. London: Hodder and Stoughton, p. 126.

The image of the uneducated and politically immature citizen has accompanied the development of modern democracy since its beginnings. Again and again the image of incompetence has been used by the powerful and their allies to resist demands for more democracy. James Madison (Federalist Papers, 1787/88), ruling liberals in 19th century Switzerland such as Alfred Escher and Jakob Dubs, the influential political columnist Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion, 1922), Joseph Schumpeter, Giovanni Sartori, and many others, all describe common people as politically incompetent and use the image of incompetence in their arguments against direct democracy.

The image of incompetence also played a prominent role in the debates for and against a ratification popular votes on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. The faith in the ability of all people to reach sound political judgements is opposed by the contention that this faith is naïve and unrealistic. Again and again, the political disempowerment of the people is justified by asserting their political incompetence. From a ‘realistic’ viewpoint, only a small part of the population has the necessary knowledge and cognitive capacity for the exercise of political power.

Who is able to create and maintain the idea that common people are politically incompetent? It is people who see themselves as the “elite”, like politicians, academics, journalists. They are members and allies of more powerful social groups who have the resources to set themselves apart and above the common people.

What is cause and what is effect?

The image of incompetence presents a view of reality in which the majority of the population is excluded from political decision-making because most of the people have limited cognitive capacities. In this view, which is the view of those who defend elitist theories of democracy, incompetence or reason is a property of individuals; political incompetence is the cause and political exclusion the effect.

But there is another way of looking at the image of political incompetence. Simplified, representative democracy can be described as a game played by two groups, which are mutually dependent on each other, representatives and represented. The politicians depend on the citizens for election. But then the doors are closed and the politicians are among themselves to play the game, making decisions for all the people until it is time for elections again.

The main difference between representatives and represented is not the quality of the intellect, but the different positions which the members of the two groups occupy in the democratic game. The individual citizen’s access to political decisions is not really denied because of his/her individual lack of political skills and competence, but because he/she belongs to that group of people who are categorized as ‘ordinary citizens’. The question as to whether in reality citizens are politically competent, or not, does not matter in this context.

The image of incompetence makes it possible to explain the political disempowerment of so-called ordinary citizens by means of their political incompetence. But in reality, it is the other way round: preventing access to political participation creates political incompetence. This means that political incompetence is a property of the system, not the individual. It originates in the asymmetrical relationship between citizens and politicians in a purely representative democracy.

From this follows immediately that education alone will never make the educated citizen. The public use of reason depends on favorable conditions. As long as the representatives are set apart and above the common people, as long as the institutionalized categorical inequality between citizens and politicians prevails, the production of political incompetence will continue. The price for educated citizens is a change of the power structure towards a more equal distribution of power.

The image of incompetence is in itself an instrument for the production of incompetence. To stigmatize so called ordinary people as stupid is reducing people’s self-value and discourage them from becoming active in politics. Inverting cause and effect helps to justify political exclusion. All this undermines the foundations of a democratic society. It tells people, that politics is neither their business nor are they responsible for it. It tells people, that they are not expected to contribute to public policies and the common good, and that it is better to follow and listen to the leaders and experts which alone are well-equiped to make the right decisions and show the way.

Another frequent argument against direct democracy is to associate it with demagoguery, manipulation, and populism. This goes often together with claims, that direct democracy leads to a tyranny of the majority or even, based on a certain interpretation of Rousseau’s concept of the general will, that it leads to “totalitarian democracy” (J.L. Talmon. The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. 1952). Time and again it has been said, that in the German constitution of 1949 no provisions for direct democracy were made because of the bad experiences with it during the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime.

The following quotes are intended to illustrate how direct democracy is being linked to manipulation and demagoguery.

“Dictatorial and authoritarian governments, beginning with Napoleon, are attracted to referendums partly just for that reason, that by manipulating the agenda they can get themselves a figue leaf of additional legitimacy.”
Eerik Lagerspetz 2003

Direct democracy is “a premium for demagogues”
Theodor Heuss 1948

“La democracia directa presenta otras deficiencias (…). Entre ellas, destaca la posiblidad de manipulación, que en la democracia de asambleas se expresa mediante el recurso a la demagogia y que en la democracia de referéndum se presenta al deseñar la agenda de las decisiones que habrán de tomarse. (…) En ambos casos, no existen límites al poder de la mayoría.”
Jean-François Prud’homme. 2001. Consulta popular y democracia directa.

Confounding referendums with plebiscites: an example

So let us look at a current example, where “attraction to referendums” reveals the will of a possible government to get additional legitimacy by manipulating the agenda. The Britsh Conservative David Davis suggested that the future Conservative government offers the British public a referendum on the policy towards the European union. “This has many virtues”, writes Davis. “It allows the British people to express their view on the future of their nation. Most of all, it gives the Government a formidable negotiating weapon.” (click to read the article)

Davis reflects on what kind of question should be asked: “It should be a question that would result in a solid majority, because that would give the maximum reinforcement to our negotiating position. (…)The question should contain four or five specific strategic aims which clearly summarise our objectives. (…) The referendum should be the first piece of legislation in the new parliament, and should be held within three months of the election (in 2010).”

Mr. Davis proposes a government initiated popular vote with questions formulated by the government in such a way to give a clear majority result. The intention is to empower government against the European union. Mr. Davis calls this top-down managed process a referendum and he pays lip service to popular sovereignty.

In reality, what he proposes is a plebsicite, which is an instrument designed to empower government, not people. Mr. Davis’ proposal shows that plebiscites are prone to manipulation, and that they have nothing to do with democracy.

Unfortunately plebiscites and referendums are often confused. This can be illustrated by the fact, that the common term ‘referendum’ is used to designate both of these fundamentally different procedures. By doing so, we obscure the concept of direct democracy and in addition to that, perhaps unintentionally, discredit direct democracy by association with the use of plebiscites by all kinds of dictators and authoritarian regimes.

Referendum vs plebiscite
By analysing the differences between referendum and plebiscite, I have slipped already into a new debate on direct democracy, because in the old debate such reflections are rarely made.

Three types of really existing democracy

In a historical perspective we can distinguish between three types of really existing democracy. Firstly premodern democracy as it was practiced in classical Athens and in the rural areas of what is today Switzerland from the thirteen century downwards. Secondly two types of modern democracy, indirect or representative democracy where only representatives have the right to legislate, and activating democracy where laws are made by both, representatives and citizens.

Three types of democracy Zaragoza
The French revolution opened a rift between the modern and the premodern world. It gave us new eyes, it changed our imagination, it catapulted democracy on the agenda of history and made it a dominant idea. The traditional relationship between ruler and ruled is inverted. In the new image of society power flows bottom-up, and this image is going to subvert the old one where power flows top-down. No longer should we look at society through the eyes of a sovereign prince to whom the subjects owe obedience. Instead we can imagine a society of free and equal individuals who have the right to make their own laws and constitution. This is called popular sovereignty. People and their rights come before the state, and it is the duty of the state to defend these rights which belong to every individual by nature.

The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (see Articles 1 and 2) is an expression for the new relationship between state and citizens. Article 6 states that popular sovereignty is exercised both ways, by the citizens themselves and by their representatives; accordingly direct and indirect democracy are compatible.

Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789
Article 1Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits. Les distinctions sociales ne peuvent être fondées que sur l’utilité commune.
Article 2Le but de toute association politique est la conservation des droits naturels et imprescriptibles de l’homme. Ces droits sont la liberté, la propriété, la sûreté et la résistance à l’oppression.
Article 6La Loi est l’expression de la volonté générale. Tous les Citoyens ont droit de concourir personnellement, ou par leurs Représentants, à sa formation. Elle doit être la même pour tous, soit qu’elle protège, soit qu’elle punisse. Tous les Citoyens étant égaux à ses yeux, sont également admissibles à toutes dignités, places et emplois publics, selon leur capacité, et sans autre distinction que celle de leurs vertus et de leurs talents.
Modern direct democracy can be distinguished from pre-modern democracy. Modern direct democracy means “direct legislation by the citizenship through the initiative and referendum” (title of a book by J.W. Sullivan published in 1893, the first book about direct democracy was written by Moritz Rittinghausen: Direkte Gesetzgebung durch das Volk, published in 1850).

Classification of Popular Vote Procedures

Institutionalization of representative democracy

Democrats agreed in principle that sovereignty resides in the people, but they disagreed over how the principle should be applied in practice and how it was to be embodied in the institutions of state. For the liberal democrats sovereignty was in practice limited to an elective democracy in which the representatives exercised political power on behalf of the citizens. They rejected direct legislation by the citizens.

This view was reflected for example in the first democratic constitution of the canton of Zürich in 1831 and in the 1848 Swiss federal constitution. Article 1 of the Zürich constitution illustrates this: “Sovereignty resides in the people as a whole. It is exercised in accordance with the constitution by the Great Council as the representative of the people.”

For the radical democrats, by contrast, popular sovereignty did not mean that citizens should hand over their sovereignty to the elected representatives, but, quite the contrary, that they should have the last word in the legislative process. It was on this fundamental principle that the radical democrats based their opposition to representative government and demanded the appropriate extension of popular rights. In the radical’s view, a purely representative system of government primarily served the vested interests of the ruling establishment, and to change this situation required that the citizens take more political power.

And so it happened in Switzerland, citizens’ initiatives and referendums were introduced first in the cantons and later in the federal state. For example in the canton of Zürich a radical democratic constitution was adopted in 1869. Article 1 of this constitution marks the difference to the former representative system, it reads as follows: “The power of the state resides in the people as a whole. It is exercised directly by those citizens who are entitled to vote, and indirectly by the authorities and the officials.”

In Switzerland two democratic revolutions were necessary to implement the right to referendum and initiative; in a first step the ancien régime was overthrown and representative democracy established, in a second step effective direct democracy was imposed as a complement to indirect democracy. What happened in the canton of Zürich in the 1860s is happening at present in Bolivia where the new constitution of 2009 with direct democracy is going to be implemented (Artículo 7. La soberanía reside en el pueblo boliviano, se ejerce de forma directa y delegada. De ella emanan, por delegación, las funciones y atribuciones de los órganos del poder público; es inalienable e imprescriptible.).

Marginalization and repression of direct democracy

However, the mainstream history followed another path, institutionalizing not radical or activating democracy but representative democracy, crowding out direct legislation by the people. Together with representative democracy a political imagination became dominant which easily rejected direct democracy as utopianism that disregards the limitations imposed by the complexity and size of advanced industrial societies.

Representative democracy can be seen as an answer to the following two questions: 1) Is direct democracy possible? 2) Is direct democracy a good thing? And the standard answer is a resounding double NO. Radical democrats give different answers. For them direct democracy is possible and it is also necessary for living the life of a free individual in a free society.

In this struggle between two models of democracy, so far representative democracy has been on the winning side most of the time. But did it win because it had the better arguments? Look at the picture: clearly direct democracy exists, and therefore it IS possible. And wether it is good or bad depends on the position from which it is observed.

Emergence of a new debate on citizen participation

From many studies on the state of our democracies the following picture emerges: Nearly all established democracies suffer from legitimacy problems. The life of people and society have changed dramatically in the course of the last decades and the political system lags behind.

There is a growing gap between those in power and those under it, between ruling elites and the people. Many people have lost their trust in government and political parties. They feel that they have no say and for many voting makes no sense if the electoral system does not offer real alternatives.

Old and new debates en
The question then arises: How to stop the hollowing out of democracy? How to make democracy sustainable?

This is the answer of an “independent inquiry into Britain’s democracy” published in 2006: The only way to reverse the developments that undermine democracy is “by rebalancing the system towards the people”. It is the same answer that Karl Bürkli, a leading figure of the democratic movement in Zürich in the 1860s, gave, that those in power “can now be hold in check only by shifting the centre of gravity of the legislative process further out, to encompass the entire people”. Citizen participation has become the key to sustainable democratic governance across the globe.

Peoples’ interest in democracy correlates with the survival valut that democracy has in their eyes. So far globalization one aspect of globalization has been, that many important political questions have been taken out of democratic decision making. Powerful corporations and financial institutes undermine the government’s capacity to respond to citizens’ concerns. Both taken together, the inherent democracy defizit of mainstream electoral democracy (elite rule) and the hollowing out of democracy due to globalization processes, explain to a good extent the increasing disengagement of peole from official politics. The survival value of democracy has decreased for those who feel themselves increasingly powerless, and also for those who feel able to defend their interests by other means.

Today direct democracy is again on the agenda in many parts of the globe. It has been introduced for example in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, in the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan. It is debated in the context of constitutional reform in Finland, Sweden and UK. Since about ten years direct democracy is a crucial element on the agenda of George Papandreou, the leader of the Greek socialist party PASOK and since the last elections in October 2009 also the leader of the Greek government. A new and global debate is emerging, and the starting point is an agreement that more citizen participation is needed to make democracy sustainable and to cope with the vital challenges that our societies and humankind must face. The search is on for a new citizenship and center stage are questions like the following:

  • Orientation: What orientation to citizen participation do we take?
  • Design: How to design institutions that enhance citizenship instead of crowding it out?
  • Infrastructure and support: What kind of infrastructure and support is needed, to make citizen participation possible and effective?
  • Education: Develop and promote education for direct democracy.
  • Glocalization: How to create global networks for mutual support and for sharing experiences and ideas?
  • Communication: What terminology should be used and how to classify the different direct democracy procedures?
  • Imagination, habits and mentality: How to overcome old mentalities which inhibit participation?
  • How to create political and administrative cultures which are supportive of citizen participation?
  • How to expand and renew our political imagination?

Orientations towards citizen participation

Let me give an example from a little town in Finland, Järvenpää. Like many other municipalities the city invites local people to participate. At the same time authorities stick to their traditional way of doing politics and decision-making. There is a contradiction between rhetoric and practice. But from this does not necessarily follow that local authorities are in reality unwilling to cooperate with the citizens. The gap between rhetoric and practice may in part also be explained by assuming that authorities and citizens attribute different meanings to the words participation and democracy.

In the authorities’ view participation means primarily consultation, an instrument to get to know the opinions, needs and expectations of the citizens. Participation is seen as a prolongation of the authorities’ activities, responsibility is transferred to the citizens but no decisional power. Citizen participation should help to make decision-making more efficient and more legitimate.

For the people the meaning of participation is different and follows from the principle of democracy. Participation is motivated by having a say. It is is an instrument to bring one’s own view into public debate and the decision making process. The expectation is, of course, that participation has a significant impact on outcomes.

Two views on participation
I know that Järvenpää is no singular case, and I know that this tension between the two orientations towards citizen participation exists not only in Finland, but also in many other countries where citizen participation is promoted. This tension is not always neatly articulated. However, it should be sorted out and made clear that citizen participation is citizen-driven and that it means citizen power.

On a deeper level the example of Järvenpää shows that one of the main obstacles for a new citizenship are old habits and old top-down thinking, and this not only on the part of officials and politicians, but also among the people.

Making direct democracy effective

Democratic procedures can only function to the extent that the basic conditions for democracy are met. To be effective, citizens’ initiatives and referendums must be well designed and the citizens must be provided with the necessary support (infrastructure, information and education, material resources et cetera).

Initiatives and referendums are processes with different stages like initiation, ballot campaign, decision by popular vote, implementation of the decision. Well designed referendum- and initiativeprocedures, from beginning to end, do not contain any hurdles which make the use of the procedure difficult or even impossible.

The design principle should be to make simple, open, and activating procedures that enable people to freely participate in the formation of the public will according to the principles of democracy.

The size of the hurdles is one determining factor for the usability of the direct-democratic instruments. Low hurdles mean that the instrument can be used by everyone (with a minimum of resources), high hurdles that only strong actors can use the instrument and too high hurdles make the instrument unusable.

Both in Switzerland and in Uruguay direct democracy is well established and effective. However, the differene in design is very significant. Whereas in Switzerland the number of signatures required for a citizens’ referendum is only about 1% of the electorate (50,000 signatures), in Uruguay the required number is 25% of the electorate. It is evident, that in Uruguay only very strong actors can have access to the referendum.

Approval and turnout quorums assist those groups which refuse to get involved in a public democratic debate and instead call for the ballot to be boycotted. This promotes undemocratic behaviour. Experience shows: Turnout quorums of 40 – 50% or more kill popular initiatives and referendums; such quorums are undemocratic.

Citizens should be able to decide on the same range of issues as their elected representatives. Creating special exclusion lists for initiatives and referendums contradicts the democratic principle of equal participation. To exclude public finances and taxation is a severe restriction of true democracy.

The limits imposed on democratic decisions by the constitution and by fundamental human rights and international law apply equally to parliamentary and direct-democratic decisions. Constitutionalism is meant to protect fundamental human rights and democracy by limiting the exercise of political power by means of a constitution. Excess constitutionalism creates the danger of a state ruled by judges: legalistic interpretations of fundamental rights replace politics. Insufficient constitutionalism, on the other hand, creates the threat of the tyranny of the majority, where minorities and human rights are disregarded. Both extremes undermine democracy.

It has become a fact that we live in one world and that we have to face the global challenges of climate change, war, supercapitalism, and authoritarianism together as one humanity in all its diversities. Direct democracy is necessary, although not sufficient, to meet these challenges.

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