Democracy & Justice

What Is Direct Democracy: Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons

​What does direct democracy mean, and how does it differ from indirect democracy? Here’s a look at what’s good and bad about “pure democracy” and whether it could still work today.

by Jonathan Day

There’s a good chance you live under some form of democracy. Nearly all Europeans do, and everyone living within the European Union lives in a democracy—a country’s institutions must guarantee democracy and the rule of law, among other things, in order to join the EU.

The form of democracy EU citizens live under is representative democracy, where we cast votes for politicians who in turn vote on what should become law. But there’s another, older form of democracy that some consider more genuine and pure. It’s called direct democracy.

What does direct democracy mean?

Direct democracy means that people vote on policies and laws themselves, instead of electing politicians to do it on their behalf. This is why it’s sometimes referred to as “pure democracy.” Direct democracy could take different forms, from a system where all executive and legislative decisions are taken by direct vote of the people, or where only certain policies or legislative acts are voted on by the people.

The latter system has been the most common form of direct democracy throughout modern history, and it is considered semi-direct democracy. This is a hybrid form of governing that combines that tenets of direct democracy and representative democracy. The people choose representatives to administer day-to-day governance, but they keep the power to directly vote on important issues through binding referendum, popular initiative, revocation of mandate, and public consultations.

How does a direct democracy differ from an indirect democracy?

As mentioned above, direct democracy is when the people vote directly on laws or other policy initiatives. Indirect democracy is when the people elect representatives to make those same votes on their behalf.

What forms does direct democracy have?

We’ve already touched on semi-direct democracy, which can be viewed as a form of direct democracy, or a separate system in itself. Looking specifically at direct democracy, the two primary forms are participatory democracy and deliberative democracy.

Participatory democracy is model of democracy in which citizens have the power to make political decisions directly through their vote. And the emphasis of participatory democracy is that action—the direct participation of citizens, through voting, in determining outcomes of legislative or policy proposals.

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A similar but distinct form of direct democracy is deliberative democracy. In deliberative democracy, the emphasis is placed on debate and deliberation as the key element of decision-making. Laws have legitimacy and force not only because a majority of people support them, but because they have been fully discussed and debated, with all viewpoints considered and all pros and cons weighed.

A good way to think of the difference between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy is the process. In the former, people go to the polls and vote. In a deliberative process, people would gather in an assembly of sorts, debate and discuss the issues to be voted on, and then reach a consensus decision.

Examples of direct democracy

The origin of modern democracy, at least as we commonly understand it, is the direct democratic system of Athens around 600 BCE. In this Athenian democracy, citizens didn’t choose representatives to vote on legislation on their behalf but instead voted on proposals and initiatives themselves.

Today, however, there are few, if any, true direct-democracy states. Switzerland prides itself on its system of direct democracy—the government even has a webpage to tout it—but in truth the Swiss system, at federal level, is a semi-direct democracy. Politicians are elected to handle the daily governance of the nation and make many decision on behalf of the people. Still, citizens do retain a high degree of democratic power. They can propose changes to the constitution or ask for a referendum to be held on any law proposed by the federal government or any cantonal parliament or other legislative body.

In the United States, many individual states and municipalities retain some direct democracy. In New England, for example, so-called town halls are assemblies with the members of local towns gather for deliberative, direct democratic processes to decide local laws and regulations. And in many countries, such as the United Kingdom and roughly a dozen EU states, national referendums still exist, under which citizens can vote directly on a legislative proposal, say to allow abortion or to leave the European Union.

Direct democracy: what are the pros and cons?

Direct democracy, or “pure democracy,” is often seen as the truest form of democracy. The people choose the laws they live under, cutting out the “middlemen” to vote on their behalf. In this way, it can be seen as inherently more virtuous than representative democracy. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its drawbacks. So what are the main pros and cons?

Pros:

-Transparency: Direct democracy is surely the most transparent form of democracy. There are no “backroom deals” made to decide the outcome or scope of legislation, because discussions and debates on important issues are held in public. And it’s the people who decide whether a proposal becomes law, and thus they bear full responsibility for the outcome.

-Accountability: Speaking of responsibility, direct democracy ensures that there is no doubt about who is accountable for the successes or failures of a countries laws or policies. Moreover, the government cannot claim to be unaware of the will of the people, and partisan lobbying and other interference in the legislative process is minimal or non-existent.

-Cooperation: Direct democracy encourages citizens to communicate and cooperate with one another, not only to consider current legislation, but also to craft legislation that best serves the most people, and thus has the best chance of winning majority support. And when people know with certainty that their voice will be considered in the process, they are far more likely to participate and cooperate with fellow citizens.

Cons:

-Indecision: Simply put, there are more people now than there were when direct democratic systems existed. Many, many more. Consider the United States, with its some 350 million people. If they all had to vote on every policy initiative or legislative proposal, nothing would ever get done. It simply would not be an efficient system, and thus it could actually weaken the effectiveness of the government.

-Participation: We are busy people. We have jobs to do, families to care for, and sports teams to form unhealthy obsessions over. If we are asked to weigh in on every decision, eventually we would just lose interest. Or simply be unable to keep up with such a demand.

-Tension: Important decisions often create tension between people with opposing views. The more important the decision, the more tension. The more decisions, the more tension. Trying to implement direct democracy today could lead to even more acrimonious societies, where people are angrier and, perhaps, more violent.

In many ways, direct democracy deserves its title as the purest form of democracy. But does that mean it’s the best? There are many reasons why we should be hesitant to want to live in a true direct democracy, even despite the fact that it makes certain that our individual opinion will matter and be considered in the final outcome. Certainly, representative democracy came about because it does some things better than direct democracy. But whether we can maintain our representative democracies so that they function as they were intended to is another matter altogether.

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