Introduction’Amandla!’,’Ngawethu!’ were the fervent chants that reverberated across South Africa inthe 1990s, as Nelson Mandela forged the path towards an apartheid-free land.Connoting to ‘Power!’, ‘It is ours!’, this is only one of countlessmanifestations of the democratic ideal of ‘power by the people’.
Such callsseem to arise during times of deep-seated social, political or economicconflict between the political elites of nations and their citizens. Thus, wecan understand it as a demand for decision-making to be returned fromgovernments to the people. First andforemost, it is important to determine whether the political institutions ofmodern democracies are compatible with the democratic ideal of ‘power by thepeople’. In doing so, this essay will detail the theory of direct democracy,specifically through the analysis of referendum and initiative processes.Furthering this, explorations of the combined use of direct and representativedemocracy in countries such as the United States, Australia and the UnitedKingdom will aid in illustrating the merits and downfalls of each. Ultimately,leading to a conclusion on the feasibility of direct democracy in the modernworld. Direct and representative democracyDirectdemocracy can be defined as a political system that permits ‘ordinary citizensto vote directly on laws rather than candidates for office’ (Matsusaka, 2005,p.187).
Contrastingly, representative democracy is when the legislatureundertakes actions, such as policy-making, on behalf of the citizens (Gailmard,2005, p.3). This distinction is crucial as there is concern that the schismbetween elected representatives and the population is not reconciling quicklyenough to cope with the advancements of modern society.
With the escalation ofthese sentiments, the two types of democracies will inevitably collide- theopposing arguments of which will be assessed. Referendums and initiativesThe two maininstruments of direct democracy are referendums and initiatives. The formerrefers to votes on approved laws that are initiated by a governing body, theresult of which is typically legally binding upon the body that authorised it(Leduc, 2002, p.73), while the latter refers to new laws that are proposed byordinary citizens by way of collecting a minimum number of signatures fromeligible voters (Matsusaka, 2005, p.187). This is known as the direct effect ofdirect democracy, whereby intermediary institutions are excluded andinformation is not filtered before reaching citizens. Both processes politicisesociety, by demanding public participation in policy-making and promotingcandid interaction with the state. Rise of direct democracyRepresentativedemocracy has ostensibly weakened the duality of democracy being the governing’of the people’ and ‘by the people’.
Although voters select their preferredrepresentatives during elections, these representatives are free to vote onpublic policies in the way they want rather than what electors want. Mishandlingof such responsibility has resulted in a ‘democratic deficit’, whereby turnoutin election voting and political participation has significantly declined(Leduc, 2002, p.70).
As shown in Figure 1, voter turnout in European electionshas been decreasing between 1979-2014, reaching an all-time low of 42.61% in2014 (Banks, 2014). This political apathy can be explained by widespreaddisaffection regarding the reluctance of representative democracy to evolve basedon society’s needs and wants. Figure1: European election turnouts (Europarl, 2014) Therefore,positive attitudes towards referendums and initiatives are gaining ground. Whenasked whether ‘Referendums and citizen initiated referendums are good things’,54% of Canadians, 50% of New Zealanders and 70% of Americans answeredaffirmatively (Bowler, Donovan and Karp, 2002).
Indeed,shifts to direct democracy often take place when the government cannot keep upwith dramatic social, economic and political changes in society. As we are now faced with a shift from an industrialeconomy to one based on information technology (Tolbert, 2003), gross wealthinequalities are being magnified worldwide. Asshown in Figure 2, over 70% of the global adult population own less than$10,000, while only 8.6% of the same demographic own more than $100,000. Understandably, many are no longer content to sitidly by while a purportedly representative government continues to act in theirown vested interests.
Figure 2: Global wealthdistribution (Inequality.org, 2017) Voter median theoremInrepresentative democracies, policy congruence refers to the degree to whichpublic policies reflect the majority will of the electorate (Leemann andWasserfallen, 2016). Within this theorem, the government and voters move alonga continuous scale that indicates their degree of support for a specific policydecision. Thelegislature is ‘unconstrained’ when it passes laws at its ideal point, and whenthere is no initiative that the proposer and voters prefer to the legislature’sideal policy. On the other hand, the legislature is ‘constrained’ when voters’preferences are also moderate, as it renders the difference between thelegislature’s ideal policy and the proposers’ best proposal inconsequential(Gerber, 1996, pp.
107-108). This allows proposers to posit a more appealingproposal, after which the legislature will be more motivated to pass laws thatare closer to the voters’ ideal point. Both scenarios err towards thepreferences of the median voter and serve to enhance policy congruence. This is theindirect effect of direct democracy, whereby political elites anticipatepreference deviations and adjust their policies to follow majority voterpreferences.
Therefore,the greater the preference divergence, the more influence initiatives andreferendums are likely to have on policy congruence (Leemann and Wasserfallen,2016, p.750). Where representative democracy falters, the threat of directdemocracy is enough to keep it in check without needing to actually beexercised. Issue bundlingInrepresentative democracies, ‘log-rolling’ is when legislatures ‘bundle’ issuesin large bills that are voted on as a package. Through this, legislators areable to trade votes and gain approval of top priorities by giving support toother issues. While streamlining discussion and negotiation can make the policy-making process more efficient, it alsomeans that candidates run on a large variety of issues and citizens are notalways fully aware of the individual positions being adopted (Matsusaka, 2005).Referendums and initiatives provide the opportunity to unbundle specific issuesand reduce the likelihood of voters electing candidates who may only take their preferred position on some issues but not on others. The choicebetween direct and representative democracy should then be between individualpolicy voting and package policy voting.
As it is, referendums often take placeon general issues that fit uncomfortably into the left-right division of partypolitics, for fear of it invoking internal splits otherwise. Indeed, thesubject matter of referendums can be said to fall into three main categories:constitutional issues, territorial issues and moral issues (Butler and Ranney,1994, p.2). In 2016 alone, several referendums withinthese categories took place, including the referendum on refugee quotas inHungary and the peace deal referendum in Columbia. Similarly, Irelandwill be voting on a referendum in 2018 regarding the revocation of theirconstitutional ban on abortion- a testament to the type of shifting values thatcan catalyse the increased reliance on direct democratic action. Thecontentious nature of such issues allow for referendums to lend greaterlegitimacy to policies, since a popular vote of endorsement is necessary beforethe government can enact any legislation.
Currentand central policies, though, remain in the control of the legislature for thesake of consistency and coherency (Budge, 2006, p.9). For instance, one ofMargaret Thatcher’s primary goals as prime minister of the United Kingdom wasto moderate inflation, by implementing higher interest rates and taxes. Evidently,these are usually medium-term issues that citizens are unlikely to have theexpertise to decide upon, thus are more suitably managed by a governing body. In thissense, the co-existence of individual policy voting and package policy voting servesto augment rather than subvert democracy, by separating voting issues accordingto aptness. Large-scale democraciesOne of themain appeals of representative democracy is the fact that it can regulate theprocess of debating and voting, which direct democracy is thought incapable ofdoing in large-scale democracies.
This is demonstrated by Bahamas’ genderequality referendum in 2016, during which false rumours spread that voting’yes’ could lead to same-sex marriage. With a 79% vote against the gendernon-discrimination bill, the soundness of the outcome was tenuous as many voteswere likely cast on the basis of support for same-sex marriage rather thanequal rights for men and women (Lowe and Suter, 2016). Without the legislatureensuring the conveyance of relevant and accurate information, voters are easilymanipulated, which could result in low-quality decisions that do not truthfullyreflect their views. Precisely, it is the influence of such external forcesthat gives rise to the volatile and unpredictable nature of referendums andinitiatives. For example, polls from the Scottish independence referendum of2014 predicted a close victory of ‘Yes’ votes, but ultimately resulted in a55%-45% majority for ‘No’ votes (Tucker, 2014). Moreover, the absence ofcorrective measures may place long-term public welfare at higher risk ofimpulsive yet irreversible public decisions. On the other hand, citizens aremore insulated from deceptive campaign information in representativedemocracies, as systematic discourse and compromise is encouraged in formalparliamentary settings. However, inthis current age of technology, the proficiency of political institutions inexecuting direct democratic procedures should no longer be underestimated.
Withthe introduction of ‘Blockchain’- a technology that verifies onlinetransmissions- many countries have begun digitalising governance and democraticparticipation. In Estonia, online crowdsourcing platform Rahvaalgatus allowsusers to discuss and vote on policy proposals online. Brazil, too, has replacedphysical signature collection with online vote casting (Softness, 2017). Bothcountries showcase a shift towards direct democracy, with technology enablinginteractive debate and voting amongst physically separated citizens. Hence,political institutions of modern democracies are not in fact unaligned withdirect democracy- they simply need to be updated to adapt to the modern world.
Voter competence Followingthis, another fear of direct democracy is that ordinary citizens do not havethe interest or expertise to draft and vote on legislation. An example of thisis Colorado’s ‘English for the Children’ initiative in 2002, in which the ambiguityof the language used in the initiative would have also eliminated ‘English as aSecond Language’ programs and contradicted the very essence of the initiative(Bozzo and Irvine, 2010). Therefore, formulation and deliberation proceduresneed to be re-evaluated to allow more focused discussion surrounding thecontents and implications of initiatives. Citizens should also be able tosuggest amendments and consider alternatives before voting on an initiative.After all, it is only through active, prolonged participation that citizens cangain the experience needed to make more informed political decisions.
Notwithstanding,voters are shown to still be able to cast accurate votes by using informationalcues such as recommendations from family and interest groups. In a studyconducted by Arthur Lupia in 1994 concerning five California insurancepropositions, uninformed voters were still able to mirror the voting patternsof the informed voters simply by knowing the positions that interest groups hadtaken on the measures. Meanwhile, uninformed voters without any informationalcues were unable to do so (Matsusaka, 2005). This would suggest that the votercompetence argument is not as dire as it may seem- a comprehensiveunderstanding of the subject-matter of a proposal is unnecessary as long asvoters are made aware of applicable informational cues.
Anyhow, voterincompetence is a critique of not just direct democracy, but democracy as awhole. If we are to follow this line of reasoning, it could be argued thatuninformed voters are also likely to make mistakes when voting on candidates,since candidates represent ‘bundles’ of issues that are even more difficult todiscern from than single issue ballots (Matsusaka, 2005, p.198). Tyranny of the majorityAdditionally,it is contested that direct democracy jeopardises minority rights – without thelegislature acting as an intermediary institution, there are no checks on thepower of the majority. Indeed, individuals who vote tend to not only be thosewith higher levels of education and wealth, but are also those who feel mostardently about the issue at hand (Matsusaka, 2005). As demonstrated inBritain’s 2016 EU referendum, there was a positive correlation between countieswith higher levels of education and income and ‘remain’ votes- 50% ofWandsworth, Richmond upon Thames and Cambridge’s population hold highereducation qualifications and gave 2/3 of their votes to ‘remain’, while only14.
2% of Norfolk’s population hold higher education qualifications and contributed71.5% of their votes to ‘leave’ (Barr, 2016). This tends to leave the interestsof the moderates and less well-off either unrepresented or misrepresented,which could impact the credibility of the outcome. However,direct democracy can also strengthen minority rights where representativedemocracy fails to do so.
Such is the case in Australia, wherein the Turnbullgovernment launched the Marriage Equality Postal Survey to facilitate theintroduction of a same-sex marriage bill. With 61.6% of Australians approving achange in the legislation (Karp, 2017), direct democracy has providedrepresentative democracy the exigency with which to legislate appropriately.Although, it should be noted that the lawfulness of the postal survey waschallenged twice in High Court based on the general belief that ‘fundamentalrights should never be put to a popular vote’ (Davey and Karp, 2017).
Thisepitomises the long-feared tyranny of the majority, which is understandableafter 22 unsuccessful attempts by the Federal Parliament of Australia tolegalise same-sex marriage between September 2004 and October 2017 (Mckeown,2017). Perhaps, though, this victory for the LGTBQ community would suggest thatthe ability of direct democracy to defend minority rights has strikinglyimproved- a valuable tool to have when the legislature is too insulated frompopular public opinion. Further,racial minorities overwhelmingly support the initiative process in the UnitedStates, with 57% of Blacks and 73% of Latinos in favour of it (Matsusaka,2005), implying that many ethnic minorities already feel cynical about thelegislature’s willingness to protect their interests.
This trend is highlightedby the fact that 64% of the American population believed that the governmentwas ‘run for the benefit of all people’ in 1964, as compared to the mere 19% in2015 (Pew Research Center, 2015). The difference in attitude towards directdemocracy in Australia and the United States may be attributed to the fact thatthe population of the latter has had more extensive experience with theprocesses than the population of the former. Indeed, SouthDakota has been practising direct democracy since 1898, whereas Australia hasonly held 44 national referendums since 1901. This could indicate thatprolonged usage and familiarity can lead to more confidence and trust in directdemocracy. ConclusionDirectdemocracy, like any form of governance, indubitably has its flaws.
Namely, thelack of intermediary institutions has a tendency to cause particular detrimentto minority groups. Nevertheless, direct democracy has proven to be paramountin keeping governments in check and providing citizens with a more substantialrole in policy-making. Direct democracy has also repeatedly refined theworkings of representative democracy through its indirect effects. Countrieslike the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, embody thiscoexistence. Supplementing this, feats of technology have aided existingpolitical institutions in modernising according to the demands of directdemocracy. As such,there is ample reason to believe that the political institutions of moderndemocracies are aligned with direct democracy. In fact, in a world wheredistrust in representative government and political disengagement is so rife,the principal issue should no longer be whether representative or directdemocracy is more suitable.
Instead, consideration should be given to how to modify and improve said politicalinstitutions in such a way as to more thoroughly integrate direct democraticrule into modern democracies. This being said, representative democracy shouldnot be entirely abandoned- the two types of democracy function to complementand strengthen one another. In turn, reinforcing the democratic process andensuring that the democratic ideal of ‘power by the people’ is not underminedby ‘power of the people’.