Three Types of Democracy

Flag DE [DE] Drei Typen von Demokratie

In a historical perspective it seems useful to distinguish between three types of democracy which exist or existed as institutionalized realities. Firstly, pre-modern or classical democracy like the ancient Athenian democracy on the level of a city state or the “Landsgemeinde” that was born in the Middle Ages in rural communities of the alpine region. Secondly, modern democracy which comes in two types: representative democracy (RD) and activating democracy (AD). The mainstream type of representative democracy is mainly indirect: elected politicians decide on behalf of the people. The alternative type of activating democracy combines representation with real and effective direct democracy, giving citizens direct access to lawmaking. This classification emphasizes qualitative differences not only between pre-modern and modern democracy but also between “representative democracy” and “activating democracy”, which are considered by many as being merely gradually different.
Three types of democracy
Modern direct democracy (MDD) or a comprehensive set of initiative and referendum rights give citizens the right to exercise popular sovereignty by voting on substantive issues. Combining RD with direct democracy brings about a qualitative change in the relationship between people (citizens) and elected politicians, and with it a new type of democracy. I call it “activating democracy” (AD), basically for two reasons. First, adding well-designed and comprehensive initiative and referendum rights (MDD) to electoral-representative democracy (RD) turns the low energy representative system into a high energy democracy; with MDD a dynamic and challenging element is introduced which activates RD and prevents it from becoming ossified (see, for example, Luciani 1998). Second, by including people (citizens) in the political process armed with their own decision-making power, AD activates citizens to participate and take responsibility for their decisions – in contrast to the representative system, which excludes people from the decision-making process and thereby promotes the deactivating idea that making political decisions on substantive issues belongs to politicians only and not to all the citizens alike.

In the Athenian democracy, political officials were chosen by lot (the democratic method), and not through elections (the aristocratic method). Sortition gives everyone – rich and poor – an equal chance to be selected for office. Elections confer advantages to people by birth, wealth and education; they serve to elevate the superior into a position of power. They are at the very heart of what nowadays is called “representative democracy”. A closer look reveals that our constitutions establish the rule of the elected politicians (the few) over the people (the many). Citizens are given very limited powers to influence politicians and government. Elections do not empower citizens to make their own laws and constitution, direct democracy does. In other words, “representative democracy” is not a democracy, but an elective and constitutional oligarchy; this is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact set up by law and constitution. If this argument is correct, we are left with only two types of really existing democracy: classical democracy and activating democracy or pre-modern and modern democracy.

In AD citizens and politicians are interconnected and interdependent in a fundamentally different way and their relationship gains a new quality. The elected politicians, no more able to monopolize the power to make political decisions, have to share this power with the citizens.Thanks to their rights to initiative and referendum, citizens have access to political decision-making and to the making of the political agenda. They have the right to make laws and to constantly renew laws and the constitution; therefore, institutional change is possible without crisis or calamity. They regularly have opportunities to really act as politicians and to become what Max Weber called “occasional politicians”. In this type of democracy people are encouraged to participate, they have the right and opportunities to become actively involved in political decision-making and this not just on rare occasions but on a regular basis. Hence the name “activating democracy”.

Two types of democracy
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 1 Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits. Les distinctions sociales ne peuvent être fondées que sur l’utilité commune.
Article 2 Le 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 6 La 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).

Diagrams of Representative “Democracy” (RD) and Activating Democracy (AD)

Representative Democracy
Activating Democracy

Next: Direct Democracy For A Future World

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Last update: 20.04.2016
[DE] added 23.06.2015