Essay: The Advantages of Direct DemocracyPosted: 13/10/2013
Direct democracy is the process by which the public make governmental decisions themselves, instead of entrusting elected representatives with that task. It can take a variety of forms, but the primary ones are referenda, citizens’ initiatives and town hall meetings. In this essay, I will consider the benefits of what is considered by some to be the ‘purest’ form of democratic government. This topic is particularly relevant at a time in which trust in existing systems of representative democracy is at an unprecedented low, and pressure for this to be reflected in constitutional changes is growing. For example, the integration of ‘e-Petitions’ into the law-making process has occurred in several countries.
A common complaint about representative democracy is that it creates a distant class of lawmakers who will often collude with vested interests, or become so detached from the lives of the general public, that they will make decisions that the public do not support. This is only possible because of the exclusivity that inevitably arises around a relatively small number of representatives. By contrast, such corruption of decision-making is impossible if every citizen is an equally powerful participant in the process. There is simply no better way of making the debate about an issue and the thinking about a solution more transparent than throwing it open to every citizen.
Consequently, if the public sense their complete control over a decision, they are more likely to engage with it and improve their understanding surrounding the matter. That’s why, during the 2011 referendum using the Alternative Vote in UK parliamentary elections, millions of people who had otherwise never heard of electoral reform participated in a national debate on one of the most fundamental issues that shape our democracy. There are numerous benefits to having higher public awareness and better understanding of political topics. Where there is generalised ignorance surrounding a political question, political figures are usually unable and unwilling to implement good policy.
Compare political debate in the US and the UK on drugs, for example, and it is clear why this is the case. In the US, several state-wide referenda have legalised certain drugs, a pragmatic approach resulting in a reduction in the harm these drugs have caused to users and to society. Whereas British politicians cannot question the hardline ‘war on drugs’ consensus and maintain credibility. It could be argued that this is because US citizens have accepted responsibility for making informed decisions on drugs policy while the British have not. Of course, the counterargument would be that direct democracy could place more power in the hands of an often ill-informed citizenry, and empowerment and education are not guaranteed to support each other.
Speaking of pragmatism, a lack of political constriction is a further advantage of direct democracy. A typical politician does not enjoy freedom simply to represent his or her constituents. The UK prime minister must have the support of their constituents, their constituency party, their parliamentary party, the national membership of their party and a majority of the House of Commons, together with the confidence of much of the media and business constituency. The potential for conflict between these groups is self-evident, and it is similar for other politicians.
When a voter participates in a referendum, they have none of these issues. They can vote however they see fit, knowing that they have no ‘party line’ to toe, no media scrutiny of their actions, and no views of constituents to balance. Voters are entirely free to vote according to the facts at hand. The removal of politicians from politics has massive theoretical potential to shift the emphasis on government from what is possible under the balance of power between groups to what is best for the country. However, this depends on the assumption that voters’ actions are not shaped by conflicting pressures: are we all not low-level politicians in one way or another? Nevertheless, the possible reduction of conflicting interests in politics is one of the biggest advantages of direct democracy.
There is an even greater advantage though. That is the creation of what has been termed ‘pick and mix policy’. For under representative democracy, voters must select a person (or more usually, party) that is the best match for their opinions and values. Unsurprisingly, no representative can be a perfect match, so all voters end up voting for a package that contains some ideas they dislike. A good metaphor for this is buying a bag of Revels chocolates, knowing that there will be some annoying chewy caramel chocolates in the bag, but tolerating them because one likes the other chocolates. Under a system of direct democracy, we can choose a Revels bag with no caramel chocolates in it. Voters are able to support all the policies that they wish, and reject all that they are opposed to. That would mark an end to the tricky philosophical and political dilemmas that so many are faced with as they struggle to find a ‘good fit’, or in the more depressive mood that pervades modern politics, ‘pick the best of a bad bunch’.
This concept offers fertile ground for speculation. If direct democracy had existed, or been further reaching, in the UK, would much of the social liberalisation of the 1960s have ever happened? Would the privatisation programme of the 1980s and 90s have taken place? Direct democracy by definition gives more power to the public but the question is whether that is a good thing in itself. And this depends on the perspective from which such a question is asked.
Democratic engagement in most representative democracies is falling just as the populace is becoming better informed than ever. Though opinion is divided as to how well educated we all are relative to our counterparts in the early and mid-20th century, there is no denying that the growth and evolution of the media has given us a better insight into the factors that shape our politics than ever. 24 hour news channels inform us of world events as they happen, whilst the ubiquity of smartphones and social media gives us a world of information at our fingertips. We are just as keen to shape the world around us as our forefathers, but we feel less able to. Is this because representative democracy lacks the speed and interactivity that we have come to expect elsewhere?
Drawing on this and points raised previously, one can see public pressure for more direct democracy. Single issue campaigns are flourishing while political parties struggle to function with tiny memberships. In a world of referenda, electronic debates and petitions, determined activists would be able to propose legislative changes as issues arose, rather than having to press for support in line with electoral cycles which tend to ‘crowd out’ such matters. For example, the issue of noise pollution from airports may be important to a very small proportion of the electorate, but the only time campaigners may be able to influence MPs, during an election, is when most talk is of the economy or public services. However, a citizens’ initiative on noise pollution regulations would provide an opportunity for both sides to argue a case and reach a clear conclusion without having to battle for recognition of the issue.
In conclusion, direct democracy could engage and encourage the education of the public; avoid the potential conflicts of interest that politicians face; enable voters to choose the exact policy platform that they desire; enhance transparency; and make corruption more difficult. It is certainly a better principle means of allowing a nation or community to govern itself with a fair distribution of power. Though there are many weaknesses compared to the system of representative democracy, this does not mean that the hybridisation of the systems, which is taking place in several parts of the world, cannot offer many of the advantages that I have outlined above.