What is Democracy? (12): Direct Democracy

Democracy is usually considered to be a system of political representation of the people. However, representative democracy has some disadvantages which can only be countered by accepting some dose of direct democracy, and hence a mixed system.

In a representative system, I can agree or disagree with the decisions of my representative and I can only do this:

  1. afterwards, when it may be too late, and
  2. for the whole of his decisions.

I cannot agree or disagree with each decision separately, even though perhaps, he took some good as well as some bad decisions. I can only vote for or against the whole person of the representative.

This is not only a lack of finesse; it also reduces the power of the people to influence decisions and to judge politicians. A politician may take one very unpopular decision and still be re-elected, because all his other decisions are approved by the people. The people generally approve of the politician, and therefore, cannot disavow the unpopular decision at the election. However, this means that decisions can be taken against the will of the people, and cannot be undone by the people. The people, therefore, do not govern themselves.

In such a system, the will of the people cannot be adequately expressed because the people cannot vote on every political decision separately. As a result, the will of the people cannot be adequately implemented, which means that the people do not rule. The people yield their power and are unable to enforce the adequate implementation of their will.

The impossibility of issue-oriented choice rather than person-oriented choice creates the temptation to focus everything on the person of the politician. After all, that is the only thing left. When it is impossible, in a vote, to distinguish between good and bad deeds of the politician, then one is liable to focus on things as vague as personality, general convictions, “charisma“, image etc. The people vote for or against politicians, names or faces, not for or against ideas or acts because they cannot use their votes to distinguish between different ideas or acts.

Direct democracy can move democracy away from a system for choosing and legitimizing (or dismissing) leaders without reference to any specific content. It can create a system where the people can decide on ideas and acts and not just on the people who are supposed to decide in their place. Referenda or local consultations are ways to let people decide directly on certain issues that concern them.

19 thoughts on “What is Democracy? (12): Direct Democracy”

  1. […] Fifth problem: even if all of the problems above could somehow be overcome, there are huge practical problems involved in allowing large numbers of people to vote on issues. Hence, deliberation about interests, justice, laws and policies takes place not in preparation of a vote on the substance of the matter but in preparation of the election of politicians who in turn will vote on the substance. This results in an additional problem: once – or better if – the people have decided on matters of interest, justice, law and policy, they’ll have to select those politicians most likely to hold the same views. That, obviously, is a problem. Not only can politicians pretend to hold certain views and do something completely different once in office. It’s also unlikely that people find a politician that holds all the good views. Hence, people have to elect politicians who will, predictably, implement some wrong views. This leads to a conclusion in favor of votes on issues rather than votes on people. In other words, a conclusion in favor of direct democracy. However, this type of democracy imposes even more duties on citizens and raises a whole new set of difficulties. […]


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