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A Look at Direct Democracy in Practice

Robert Dimuro

Posted on September 8, 2019 11:36

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Is direct democracy a viable solution to return political power to the people?

A direct democracy is a system of government in which the people vote directly on proposed legislation. Although everyone is likely to learn about direct democracy in school, there are only two societies in all of history that have implemented this type of government - namely, ancient Athens and Switzerland today. The closest that most Western nations come to being direct democracies is when a referendum is called on a major political issue, such as with Brexit.

Let's first look at the conditions under which a direct democracy can thrive, as it does (or did) in the examples I mentioned above. In Athens, the right to vote was predicated on a citizen class that was obligated to provide military service. Athens was unique in that it derived most of its power from its navy. Since it was easy for citizens to be trained to row a boat and they didn’t need to buy the expensive armor and weaponry of a hoplite or cavalryman, virtually all citizens could serve in the navy, meaning that the aristocratic class couldn't hold all the voting power as they would have in other city-states. Therefore, every citizen naturally wanted to participate in the assembly and make his/her voice heard.

No society today is comparable to ancient Athens and the martial ethos that existed in the ancient world. However, Switzerland is a nation that allows us to see direct democracy in action, with certain limitations. For example, Parliament can pass laws and make amendments to existing laws without a vote, but citizens can call for a referendum on these laws and overturn them if they wish. However, in some cases, a referendum can actually be mandatory, such as when an amendment to the Constitution is proposed. When analyzing the workings of Swiss democracy, it's clear that an educated and engaged citizenry with a common embrace of self-governance is necessary for its ability to function properly.

Citizens of nations with representative democracies don't embrace the notion of self-governance to the extent that Swiss citizens do. This is one drawback of a representative democracy. Although citizen participation in government is still of utmost importance, citizens tend to become more and more distant from the political process, as their political power is diminished over time by representatives who no longer represent the people and represent the interests of the party establishment and their donors. This could not have happened in Athens.

This is not to say that America, for example, should become a direct democracy. There are many reasons to believe that a direct democracy would be woefully impractical and self-defeating in America. One reason is that, although decision making seems to be at a crawl now, calling for millions of Americans to vote on a piece of legislation that could take months to draft would actually render self-governance even less feasible. Nonetheless, the values that direct democracy has inspired in Athens and Switzerland should be indicative of what's lacking in our political process.

Robert Dimuro

Posted on September 8, 2019 11:36

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Source: TIME
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