Direct Democracy is Real Democracy

Direct Democracy is Real Democracy

AD vs RD

Question (1/7): You used the term ‘real democracy’ to describe direct democracy. Could you please briefly summarize the main characteristics of direct democracy that make it a real democratic system compared to other forms of democracy like pure representative parliamentarism – according to your opinion?

Answer: Democracy is a political choice; we must choose self-rule (autonomy) against being ruled by others (heteronomy). Democracy implies citizens who truly want to participate and are committed to act in accordance with the democratic principles. Citizen participation in decision-making requires adequate tools, time and a supportive environment (infrastructures). In a real democracy people make their own constitution and laws, and by doing it they simultaneously establish the demos or sovereign people; the constitution can be changed by the citizens and only by the citizens (the importance of citizens writing their own constitution is dealt with extensively in Etienne Chouard’s website).

Elections alone don’t constitute a democracy: they do not empower citizens to make their own constitution and laws. Direct democracy does, and the instruments of direct democracy are: citizens’ initiatives, citizen-initiated referendums, obligatory referendum, popular assembly. Consequently, I would argue that democracy is the primary structure and representation must remain subordinated to it. Otherwise the result will not be democracy but an oligarchy such as what is called liberal or representative democracy.

I try to capture a crucial difference between “representative democracy” and “real democracy” using an image of two different cars. The first car is made by representatives who sit in the drivers seat and decide the destination. The second car is made by the citizens; they sit in the drivers seat and decide where to go. In RD citizens are objects of decision-making, in AD they are subjects and decision-makers. From the citizens point of view the difference is between heteronomy and autonomy.

Let us consider the Constitution of Greece as an example of a purely representative or liberal democracy: It says that all powers derive from the people (article 1) but the legislative powers are exercised, not by the people, but only by the Parliament and the President (article 26). A similar arrangement is established by the Finnish Constitution (articles 2 and 3). Both constitutions institute rule by the politicians, not by the people. Neither of them is made by the people.

Both constitutions establish a relationship of categorical inequality between represented (people) and representatives (politicians). People are disempowered; politicians are empowered: they monopolize the right to make decisions on policy issues. This means that people have to renounce on liberty as autonomy, and that representative democracy actually is devoid of popular sovereignty, which is at the very core of real democracy. In RD people are under guardianship; they are treated like children who are not yet of legal age and cannot decide for themselves; governments decide for the citizens, just like parents decide for their children, what is best for them.

The people who make the rules for themselves as members of a political community live in a democracy, they are self-determined (autonomy). People who are bound by these rules but are not allowed to participate in their making do not live in a democracy; they are determined by others, by those who make the decisions on their behalf (heteronomy).

We can see now that what is misleadingly called “representative democracy” actually is a form of oligarchy. The founding fathers of the U.S. Constitution called it “republic”; it was designed, not to implement democracy, but to prevent its implementation. In the Federalist 63 James Madison makes this crystal clear: The true distinction between real democracy and republic “lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share in the government”. The liberal constitution-makers, in the USA, in France and elsewhere, are concerned with establishing a regime under the rule of propertied elites; they fight against and fear real democracy and ordinary people.

Comparing Switzerland (AD) with Finland (RD) in terms of what types of popular vote procedures exist and how they are used, the following picture emerges: In Switzerland, on the national level, there are referendum and initiative procedures but no plebiscites, and the procedures are used routinely. In Finland there is the plebiscite but no referendum and no initiative procedures, and plebiscites are used rarely.


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