Pros and Cons

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Representative and direct democracy are like oil and water, they are incompatible, one of the two principles must be given priority.

The designation “representative democracy” is a misnomer, it actually refers to an oligarchic regime that was designed and installed instead of democracy. To call it ‘democracy’ has served to conceal precisely this. So the above argument against direct democracy has to be restated using the real names: “Oligarchy and democracy are like oil and water, they are incompatible, one of the two principles must be given priority.”

From this follows that those who choose to give priority to “representative democracy” are actually supporters of an oligarchy which disempowers the great majority of the population. Support for “representative democracy” against direct democracy is common among politicians of all colours, power holders and the “elites” that serve them.

Well-designed direct democracy strengthens and invigorates the political system and renders it democratic. Initiatives and referendums represent dynamic elements, which prevent the political system from ossification. Both citizen lawmaking and parliamentary legislation are expressions of the same principle of popular sovereignty – provided people do have the last word and are in control of parliament.

In Switzerland most of the decisions remain to be decided by parliament, government and administration. Only the most important decisions and those selected by the citizens are decided by popular votes. The independence of the judiciary is not questioned by direct democracy.

Source: Peter Kellner. Down with people power. In: Prospect, 4th July 2009 – Issue 160
Ordinary citizens are not interested enough in politics. They are uninformed, uneducated, irrational, emotional, egoistic and short-sighted. Citizens are politically incompetent and the issues are too complex for them to understand. Therefore political decisions on policy issues should be made by professional politicians who have the necessary skills and understanding.

A real interest in politics depends on having a voice. But people also have the right to not participate in politics. What is crucial is that everybody has the same rights and possibilities to participate. In a democracy every person has one vote, regardless of whether he or she is competent or not, rich or poor, black or white … It is certainly rational to not participate in a popular vote when one is either not concerned or not informed about the issue involved. A high turnout is not the most important measure of democracy, rather the turnout rate is an indicator of the importance given to a particular voting issue by the citizens.

There is no proof that some group or person would know better than any other group or person what is good for all people. No one can be an expert in everything. This is true for citizens and for politicians as well, they too need advice from specialists that are trustworthy.

What reasons could there possibly be that would make politicians more intelligent than other people? The difference between politicians and citizens lies not in the brain but with the fact that politicians have more power resources: they monopolize the right to set the agenda and to make decisions on substantive political issues (matters of policy).

Politicians are not less emotional than citizens. The smaller, more closed and less public the circle of decision-makers is, the stronger and freer personal feelings and interests can affect decisions. The most extreme case and opposite of democracy is reached when decisions are made by one person alone.

There is a contradiction between the assumption that, as electors, ordinary people are competent to choose between different parties and party programmes, and the assumption that the same people are not competent to participate in decision-making on political issues. Surely, deciding on issues is not more complex than deciding on persons and programmes.

Political incompetence is no cause for excluding citizens from political decision-making on issues. In reality it is the other way round: political incompetence is an effect of the exclusion of citizens from political decision-making.

Citizens are easily manipulated by power-seeking individuals and groups; those who have more power and resources (money, education, organisational power …) have advantage over the less powerful.

It is true that those having more power and resources will generally be more successful than those having less resources. This is true in any political system, with or without direct democracy. However, direct democracy provides the less powerful with important power resources, which do not exist in a purely parliamentarian democracy. In addition, lobbying parliamentarians and governments is easier, cheaper and less transparent than manipulating a whole electorate.

The most important questions should be decided by the politicians.

The most important question should be decided by the citizens themselves. If decision-making is monopolized by a small group of politicians (as is the case in most of today’s liberal democracies) we must expect that those in power will make decisions based on their own interests rather than on the common good. Direct democracy helps to keep in check the power of ruling political parties and their leaders.

To promote the common good and individual freedom it is necessary that all the citizens can participate in the formation of the values that regulate the living together of the people. The most fundamental questions are not of a technical/scientific nature, they are about values, the good ways of live, right and wrong, justice. No one can represent the personal needs and values of someone else; such questions have to be dealt with in the first person, they are best decided by the concerned people themselves, not by experts or representatives. There are thus fundamental questions which are incompatible with the principle of representation and consequently should be resolved in a direct-democratic way.

The following graph should remind us that the pros and cons of direct democracy are usually made from a particular point of view. A top-down approach sees the relationship between citizens and politicians differently than a bottom-up approach. Elitist theories of democracy have a different view on the human being, participation and freedom than egalitarian theories (see Two Views on Democracy).

Background pros and cons

Direct democracy hinders progress.

Democratic decisions should be representative, that is, express the political will of all the citizens. When a majority of the citizens decides differently from the elites, such a decision often gets labelled as backward by opponents of democracy.

Direct democracy is much more expensive than representative government. Letting politicians decide is more efficient than direct democracy.

In a democracy legitimacy, which is not to be confused with efficiency, comes first. However, more legitimate decisions are implemented with lesser costs than less or non-legitimate decisions.

Direct democracy diminishes the quality of public debates; it makes them one-dimensional, it banalises and demonises them and reduces complexity to simple yes-or-no questions.

Direct democracy improves the quality of public debates, on which the quality of the decisions depends. The debates in parliament are complemented with more public debates in which a large spectrum of interests and positions are involved. The fact, that citizens have the last say, improves the willingness of politicians and media to deliver more factual information and better explanations about political issues. However, additional measures have to be taken in order to guarantee free and fair information and referendum campaigns.

Direct democracy obliterates political responsibility. Politicians that make bad decisions can be replaced by better ones, which hopefully do not make the same mistakes, at the next election. But what can be done, if the “People” makes a bad decision? Who is responsible then?

The people concerned always must bear the consequences of a decision, regardless whether it was taken indirectly by parliament or directly by the citizens; this is true also in cases where politicians step down or are not elected any more. If citizens make the wrong decisions, they have to bear the consequences. In a democracy citizens have the possibility to learn from their errors and to correct them.

Direct democracy means bad decision-making, referendum decisions bring inconsistency and instability.

Direct democracy means that political decisions become more legitimate and more representative, closer to the preferences and will of the citizens. Well legitimated decisions are easier to implement.

Source: Parsons, Frank. 1900. Direct Legislation or the Veto Power in the Hands of the People. Philadelphia, pp. 67-68.
Opinion polls are cheaper than initiative and referendum votes and give the same information.

A direct democratic popular vote is different from a popular consultation and even more different from an opinion poll. Direct democracy is not a form of instant democracy, but a political process whose quality depends highly on the quality of the public debates and referendum campaigns. Public debates need sufficient time to progress and the conditions for faire participation must be met in order to have a full debate, in which citizens as well as government and parliament are involved.

In big and populous states direct democracy is practically impossible.

Size is not the problem; experience shows that direct democracy can function also in big and populous states (for example California). The argument about size is telling something different, not that direct democracy is technically impossible but that it is not wanted.

Direct democracy disunites and divides the People.

Through direct participation of the citizens in the democratic process of solving political issues a shared political identity is created. Government and opposition, majorities and minorities, established and outsiders – they all can participate in public debates and decision-making. This improves the integration capacity of society. Political participation is a process of political integration, not disintegration. It keeps society together, a society which becomes more and more complex and less and less unified by common origin, language, culture or religion. A democratic society is created and maintained, when political power is exercised in a democratic manner, when the citizens have equal rights and opportunities to participate in decision-making and in the search for solutions to issues and conflicts that concern them. A democratic society recognizes pluralism and diversity; democracy or politics begins with disagreement, not with consensus.

Introducing well-designed initiative- and referendum rights makes democracy more inclusive and political power more equally distributed. However, power inequalities remain, for example, in the economy, media, military, family, and in education. Public opinion and peoples’ habitus (entrenched ways of thinking, speaking and doing things) bear the imprint not only of democratic but also of non-democratic social relations, of domination and oppression. Identification with the dominant groups works in favor of those who have more power and better means to defend their positions and interests, giving them additional advantage over the many who are in subordinate positions. In other words, more powerful and resourceful groups can make better use not only of indirect but also of direct democracy and subordinate groups, under the influence of domination past and present, may use direct democracy and vote in ways that, as fully democratic citizens, they would not.

Related: Debates on direct democracy: old and new

Next: The Creation of In/Competent Citizens

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Last updated: 26.06.2015