Direct Democracy or Representative Democracy: Which is Best?

Direct Democracy or Representative Voting Conditions Election Methods.jpg

Direct Democracy or Representative Democracy?

by Josh Stewart

The conventional wisdom regarding politics is that the more power given to the citizenry, the better society will be. Such an argument is not without merit. The notion of instilling sovereignty in the people follows the evolution of humanity from the archaic interactions of the prehistoric cavemen through medieval aristocracy to modern-day notions of self-governance.  Those who dare challenge such dogma do so at their own peril. But, in light of the “democracy” that has ushered in a near-totalitarian regime in Egypt, it is not necessarily unreasonable to question the limits of democracy—at least in its direct variant.

Direct Democracy or Representative anarchy James Madison

“In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign” – James Madison

It’s rather ironic that at times, opponents of direct democracy are often derided for referring to historic principles and characters to support their aversion to direct democracy; they are met with charges of being anachronistic and obsolete. Yet the primary rallying cry of those who favor it usually begins with “We the People”, recalling a theme some 200-plus years old. But, by referencing the likes of Madison’s “Federalist 10”, we are able to see the results of direct democracy. Like it or not, history has proven that democracies are “…incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” ¹

To be fair, there are a number of examples through which direct democracy has succeeded. Yet most are nothing more than a combination of representative democracy sprinkled with direct facets—usually in a limited function.  Switzerland, for example, is widely referenced for its long-standing direct democracy process. However, direct democracy is only one aspect of Swiss governance. A popularly elected Federal Assembly exists to create federal law with local assemblies having been abolished in all but two Swiss cantons.²

Direct Democracy or Representative?

Unfortunately, what makes direct democracy impractical at a federal level are laws and policies that exist precisely as a result of the underpinnings of the direct democracy movement itself—namely, the desire for an expansive bureaucracy. The enormity and complexity of the United States government is a result of an amalgamation of various legislation designed to fulfill the desires of the populace—often without regard for the consequences.  Is it in any way accurate to suppose that 100-million-plus citizens mulling over tens of thousands of tax code or coordinating a national referendum regarding appropriations bills that determine where more than two trillion dollars in revenue should be allocated are in any way practical exhibitions of democracy?

A small group of direct democracy activists Direct Democracy or Representative

A small group of direct democracy activists exists but are not prevalent

Furthermore, direct democracy erases the fundamental virtues of traditional law. It allows for factions to yield absolute power through majoritarian rule, subverting the rights of the minority. Is it too far of a stretch to imagine a situation in which a popular grassroots movement of lower and middle class citizens easily garners a simple majority and passes a referendum that orders the complete redistribution of all assets and property of, say, the top 49 percent? The primary danger of direct democracy is both a quantitative and qualitative matter.

Essentially, where is the line drawn? If democracy is nothing more than rule by the people, then direct democracy would be the essence of democracy; and if direct democracy is the essence of democracy, then it should be absolute. Why should the people be limited in their power to rule and make decisions for themselves?

Even the election of a president or Congress would equate to a diminution of the democratic power of the people, because, why take the risk of having one single decision made to establish even a single law that is counterproductive to the majority? Even aspects of Constitutional law and criminal law should not be held hostage to the suppositions of a few elected officials or any notion of a moral code. These are the questions rarely, if ever, asked concerning all that direct democracy entails.

Madison and others of his ilk understood that power begins with the people, but is vested in a few as a means of restraining the tendencies of the masses. Those who advocate for a direct democracy are not simply extreme in their ideation or even misguided in their logic. They have merely failed to remember that our government has derived its just powers “from the consent of the governed.” ³ The absolute power is already in the hands of the voters. They must understand that a representative government creates the proper balance between the will of the people and the tyranny of the majority—a line of demarcation not always easily visible.

It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny.”

—JAMES FENIMORE COOPER in “The American Democrat”

Direct Democracy or Representative References

  1. Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet, 2003. P.76. Print.
  2. Ladner, Andreas and Michael Brändle. “Does Direct Democracy Matter for Political Parties?” London: Sage Publications, 1999. P. 288. Accessed 12/12/12.
  3. 3. The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. 4 July 1776. . Accessed 12 December 2012. Web.

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  1. Michael Ossipoff says

    Jim Hightower said that if you want to clear the water, you first have to get the hogs out of the creek.

    Representatives are easily (and usually) bought. Representatives frequently ignore and violate their campaign promises.

    To say that representative democracy is unresponsive would be an understatement.

    But direct democracy has a problem too: With 100 million voters, continual ongoing voting would surely require automated balloting and computerized counting–two things that make an election system count-fraud-prone.

    So, (only) for that reason, I have to reluctantly abandon the direct democracy proposal.

    That’s regrettable, because otherwise DD has great possibilities. It could be done by phone or by computer, using anonymous voter registration numbers. Voters could designate a proxy, to vote on all issues that the voter doesen’t have the time or interest to vote on (that would usually be most issues and questions). If your proxy doesn’t vote on a particular question or issue, then his/her proxy will vote for him/her and you.

    But you could also, additionally, have the option to delcare a ranking of proxies for your voting power to go to, in the event that higher-ranked proxies don’t vote on a question or issue.

    Your proxy could be a friend, relative, spouse, parent, child, teacher, govt official, party-leader, etc.

    If representatives always acted in accord with public wishes, then the results would be similar, and the author wouldn’t fear the results of direct democracy. So he must be saying that representative democracy is better when representativs act contrary to public wishes.

    The author spoke of the impracticality of every voter voting on every issue and question. That wouldn’t be necessary. Voters could vote only on the issues and questions of interest to them, and which they have time to deal with. Everything else could be left to one’s proxy (or a sequence of proxies).

    Proxy DD would be a feasible and good proposal, if the count-fraud problem of automated balloting and counting could be solved.

    • says

      I think there is a good argument to be made for direct democracy in an age of communication technology. People have more info at their disposal than any before. But the big issue seems to me to be security and integrity of the vote in such a system. On top of this, education improvements specifically in K-12 civics/democracy as well as science education would only help.

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