Direct democracy broadly refers to the unmediated engagement of citizens in government or in governing themselves. The term can be understood in contrast to representative democracy, where representatives are authorized through public elections to represent the interests of their constituencies. In direct democracies, in comparison, all citizens directly participate in deciding public matters.
The Ancient Greek polis democracy in Athens is often referred to as ideal of a direct democracy. Although excluding women and unfree men (slaves) all those with citizen status publicly gathered on the agora (a public place in the city centre) and deliberated political issues, held speeches and finally decided political matters. When political communities started to grow in scale (from cities to modern nation states) new participatory modes needed to be invented to fulfill participatory promises of democracy on a large scale. Liberal democracies emerged through new forms of parliamentarism in Great Britain and the United States of America in the 18th century, which transformed the concept of democracy from direct participation to representation. Anarchist and socialist models of democracy, however, tried to realize direct democracy on a larger scale and practiced concepts of delegation in council democracies. Here delegates from councils at the local level would be sent to councils at the regional and from there to the federal level in a kind of pyramid strucutre with imperative (binding) mandates in contrast to liberal democracies free mandates.
Today the term direct democracy is mostly associated with direct democratic mechanisms like referenda, plebiscites, and citizens' initiatives. As Switzerland employs these tools much more frequently in comparison with any other democratic state, it is often referred to as direct democracy. Most scientists, however, agree that Switzerland should be understood as semi-direct democracy as it employs direct democratic instruments within a representative democratic system. Thus the idea of direct democracy has shifted from an understanding close to the meaning of participatory democracy in the Ancient Greek polis democracies to campaigns involving the collections of signatures and a voting act in order to influence the policies of representative governments. However, more recently discussions about electronic, digital or cyberdemocracy have revived the direct democratic ideal in its broad participatory sense as the availability of electronic means of communication make political decisions possible for everyone, at any times, in any place.
The following are some types of direct democratic instruments. They can either be implemented on the local, state or reginal level.
- Constitutional referendum: Some changes in the constitutions of countries that have great effect on the political system of the state, need to undergo a public referendum.
- Advisory Referendum (non-binding): The legislative can initiate a referendum. Its outcome is not binding but serves to advise the government.
- Citizens' initiative: Citizen gather a certain among of signatures which results in a voting act, in which further citizens can express their support. If the votes cast on this day plus the original signatures collected to initiate the vote exceed a certain threshold, the matter needs to be discussed, but not decided upon, by parliament.
- Citizens' initiative referendum/plebiscite: This referendum is initiated by citizens through the collection of a certain number of signatures. The voting act results in a binding decision.
- Recall referendum: Citizens initiate the removal from office of an elected official through the gathering of signature and the following referendum.
The earliest known direct democracy is said to be the Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC, although it was not an inclusive democracy: women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded from it. The main bodies in the Athenian democracy were the assembly, composed of male citizens; the boulê, composed of 500 citizens; and the law courts, composed of a massive number of jurors chosen by lot, with no judges. There were only about 30,000 male citizens, but several thousand of them were politically active in each year, and many of them quite regularly for years on end. The Athenian democracy was direct not only in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also in the sense that the people through the assembly, boulê, and law courts controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business. Modern democracies, being representative, not direct, do not resemble the Athenian system.
Also relevant to the history of direct democracy is the history of Ancient Rome, specifically the Roman Republic, beginning around 509 BC. Rome displayed many aspects of democracy, both direct and indirect, from the era of Roman monarchy all the way to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the Senate, formed in the first days of the city, lasted through the Kingdom, Republic, and Empire, and even continued after the decline of Western Rome; and its structure and regulations continue to influence legislative bodies worldwide. As to direct democracy, the ancient Roman Republic had a system of citizen lawmaking, or citizen formulation and passage of law, and a citizen veto of legislature-made law. Many historians mark the end of the Republic with the passage of a law named the Lex Titia, 27 November 43 BC, which eliminated many oversight provisions.
Modern-era citizen lawmaking began in the towns of Switzerland in the 13th century. In 1847, the Swiss added the "statute referendum" to their national constitution. They soon discovered that merely having the power to veto Parliament's laws was not enough. In 1891, they added the "constitutional amendment initiative". Swiss politics since 1891 have given the world a valuable experience base with the national-level constitutional amendment initiative. In the past 120 years, more than 240 initiatives have been put to referendums. The populace has been conservative, approving only about 10% of these initiatives; in addition, they have often opted for a version of the initiative rewritten by government. (See Direct democracy in Switzerland below.)
Some of the issues surrounding the related notion of a direct democracy using the Internet and other communications technologies are dealt with in e-democracy and below under the term electronic direct democracy. More concisely, the concept of open source governance applies principles of the free software movement to the governance of people, allowing the entire populace to participate in government directly, as much or as little as they please.
Direct democratic participation is generally open to all with citizen status and who are above the voting age. Citizenship, however, is often restricted as the example of the Ancient Greek polis democracy proves. Today many migrants, who live in their new home countries for many years, are still restricted from voting. Many countries also deprive convicted felons from voting rights.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The deliberative character of direct democracy has changed quite a lot over the millennia. In the Ancient Greek polis democracy all those with citizen status gathered and discussed and decided on political matters directly. Poleis were small and decentralized enough to make the face-to-face engagement of all formal citizens possible. This ideal is still preserved in some Swiss cantons, where citizens of a village gather and deliberate face-to-face.
In large scale modern democracies this is not possible. That does not mean, however, that deliberation does not take place. During referendum campaigns or in the process of gathering signatures for petitions, citizens deliberate in smaller, more private circles, with their friends and families. Print media and television yield enormous power in this process as they mediate what is said by experts and politicians to "ordinary citizens". This channel mostly works one way, top down. Social media like facebook and twitter make the interaction of citizens with a greater, while still restricted and selective, public possible. Posting or commenting on political content is a way of deliberative political engagement that differs from traditional forms in many ways: messages tend to be shorter and more visualized, the audience does not include all citizens but a selected group usually encompassing a couple of hundred people. Nevertheless, new media has opened new channels of horizontal communication in contrast with old media.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Many direct democracy advocates complain about high quantitative barriers like quotas that keep referenda from succeeding. Moreover, in many countries referenda can only be initiated by governments, not by citizens. Nevertheless, direct democratic instruments appear to have an effect on how democratic systems work. The easier it is for citizens and oppositional parties to initiate referenda or petitions, the more governments appear responsive to citizens' interests even before such direct democratic instruments are employed. The effect of anticipatory obedience, while always present to a certain extent in modern democracies as elected office holders are afraid to be punished at elections, is enhanced through instruments of direct democracy. So even while many referendum initiatives fail either because not enough signatures can be gathered in the time provided or because not enough citizens take part in the voting act of the referendum (quorum) or because not enough citizens vote in favor of the suggested initiative, modern democracies employing direct democratic mechanisms prove to be more democratic than those without.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While the positive aspects of direct democratic instruments become apparent in the descriptions above, criticism is uttered as well:
- Modern direct democratic tools are often "high jacked" and instrumentalzed by oppositional parties or even by government parties who face strong opposition either from their coalition partners or from other societal actors (economic elite, lobbies etc.). In these cases direct democratic instruments do not serve citizens to express their will vis-a-vis the elected government anymore, but they serve oppositional parties aiming to increase their success at the next elections.
- In referendum campaigns the media, and thus big corporations with their own political interests, play a big role. All political content in the deliberative process during the campaign is mediated through newspapers, television, radio and the internet. If influential newspapers or TV stations campaign for specific decision this can greatly influences the outcome of the referendum.
- In such campaigns often emotional, concise and easily comprehensible arguments, even if factually wrong, often prove more decisive than more complicated arguments. Fears often prevail.