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Direct democracy, classically termed pure democracy, is a form of democracy and a theory of civics in which sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate. Depending on the particular system, this assembly might pass executive motions, make laws, elect or dismiss officials, and conduct trials. Direct democracy stands in contrast to representative democracy, where sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people, usually on the basis of election. Deliberative democracy incorporates elements of both direct democracy and representative democracy.
Many countries that are representative democracies allow for three forms of political action that provide limited direct democracy: initiative, referendum (plebiscite), and recall. Referenda can include the ability to hold a binding referendum on whether a given law should be rejected. This effectively grants the populace which holds suffrage a veto on government legislation. Initiatives, usually put forward by the populace, force the consideration of laws or amendments (usually by a subsequent referendum), without the consent of the elected officials, or even in opposition to the will of said officials. Recalls give people the right to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term, although this is very rare in modern democracies.
The earliest known direct democracy is said to be the Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC, although it may be argued that it was not a true democracy because women and slaves were excluded from it. The main bodies in the Athenian democracy were the assembly, composed by male citizens, the boule, composed by 500 citizens chosen annually by lot, and the law courts composed by a massive number of juries chosen by lot, with no judges. Out of the male population of 30,000, several thousand citizens were politically active every year and many of them quite regularly for years on end. The Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule and law courts controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business. Modern democracies do not use institutions that resemble the Athenian system of rule.
Also relevant is the history of Roman republic beginning circa 449 BC (Cary, 1967). The ancient Roman Republic's "citizen lawmaking" â€” citizen formulation and passage of law, as well as citizen veto of legislature-made law â€” began about 449 BC and lasted the approximately 400 years to the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Many historians mark the end of the Republic on the passage of a law named the Lex Titia, 27 November 43 BC (Cary, 1967).
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". The Swiss political battles since 1891 have given the world a valuable experience base with the national-level constitutional amendment initiative (Kobach, 1993). In the past 120 years, more than 240 initiatives have been put to referendum. 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.) Another example is the United States, where, despite being a federal republic where no direct democracy exists at the federal level, almost half the states (and many localities) provide for citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives (also called "ballot measures" or "ballot questions") and the vast majority of the states have either initiatives and/or referendums. (See Direct democracy in the United States 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. This development strains the traditional concept of democracy, because it does not necessarily give equal representation to each person. Some implementations may even be considered democratically-inspired meritocracies, where contributors to the code of laws are given preference based on their ranking by other contributors.
Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 500 BC. Athens was one of the very first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, and even though most followed an Athenian model, none were as powerful, stable, or as well-documented as that of Athens. It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participation was by no means open, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a scale that was truly phenomenal. The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres.
Solon (594 BC), Cleisthenes (508/7 BC), and Ephialtes (462 BC) all contributed to the development of Athenian democracy. Historians differ on which of them was responsible for which institution, and which of them most represented a truly democratic movement. It is most usual to date Athenian democracy from Cleisthenes, since Solon's constitution fell and was replaced by the tyranny of Peisistratus, whereas Ephialtes revised Cleisthenes' constitution relatively peacefully. Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, was killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were subsequently honored by the Athenians for their alleged restoration of Athenian freedom.
The greatest and longest lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolution towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of this fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean system. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BC. The Athenian institutions were later revived, but the extent to which they were a real democracy is debatable.
In Switzerland, single majorities are sufficient at the town, city, and canton level, but at the national level, double majorities are required on constitutional matters. The intent of the double majorities is simply to ensure any citizen-made law's legitimacy (Kobach, 1993).
Double majorities are, first, the approval by a majority of those voting, and, second, a majority of cantons in which a majority of those voting approve the ballot measure. A citizen-proposed law (i.e. initiative) cannot be passed in Switzerland at the national level if a majority of the people approve, but a majority of the cantons disapprove (Kobach, 1993). For referendums or propositions in general terms (like the principle of a general revision of the Constitution), the majority of those voting is enough (Swiss constitution, 2005).
In 1890, when the provisions for Swiss national citizen lawmaking were being debated by civil society and government, the Swiss copied the idea of double majorities from the United States Congress, in which House votes were to represent the people and Senate votes were to represent the states (Kobach, 1993). According to its supporters, this "legitimacy-rich" approach to national citizen lawmaking has been very successful. Kobach claims that Switzerland has had tandem successes both socially and economically which are matched by only a few other nations, and that the United States is not one of them. Kobach states at the end of his book, "Too often, observers deem Switzerland an oddity among political systems. It is more appropriate to regard it as a pioneer." Finally, the Swiss political system, including its direct democratic devices in a multi-level governance context, becomes increasingly interesting for scholars of European Union integration (see Trechsel, 2005)
Direct democracy was very much opposed by the framers of the United States Constitution and some signers of the Declaration of Independence. They saw a danger in majorities forcing their will on minorities, notably manifested in what Madison referred to as the "leveling impulse" of democracy to restrict the wealth and power of economic and social elites in favor of the public at large. As a result, they advocated a representative democracy in the form of a constitutional republic over a direct democracy. For example, James Madison, in Federalist No. 10 advocates a constitutional republic over direct democracy precisely to protect the individual from the will of the majority. He says, "A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found 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." John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said "Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state â€” it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage." Alexander Hamilton said, "That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity..."
Despite the framers' intentions in the beginning of the republic, ballot measures and their corresponding referendums have been widely used at the state and sub-state level. There is much state and federal case law, from the early 1900s to the 1990s, that protects the people's right to each of these direct democracy governance components (Magleby, 1984, and Zimmerman, 1999). The first United States Supreme Court ruling in favor of the citizen lawmaking was in Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company v. Oregon, 223 U.S. 118â€”in 1912 (Zimmerman, December 1999). President Theodore Roosevelt, in his "Charter of Democracy" speech to the 1912 Ohio constitutional convention, stated "I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative."
In various states, referendums through which the people rule include:
There are now a total of 24 U.S. states with constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, direct democracy governance components (Zimmerman, December 1999). In the United States, for the most part only one-time majorities are required (simple majority of those voting) to approve any of these components.
In addition, many localities around the U.S. also provide for some or all of these direct democracy governance components, and in specific classes of initiatives (like those for raising taxes), there is a supermajority voting threshold requirement. Even in states where direct democracy components are scant or nonexistent at the state level, there often exists local options for deciding specific issues, such as whether a county should be "wet" or "dry" in terms of whether alcohol sales are allowed.
In the U.S. region of New England, many municipalities (styled towns in contrast to cities) practice a very limited form of home rule, and decide local affairs through the direct democratic process of the town meeting.
Electronic direct democracy (EDD) is the strongest form of direct democracy, in which people are involved in the legislative function. Many advocates think that also important to this notion are technological enhancements to the deliberative process. Electronic direct democracy is sometimes referred to by many other names, such as open source governance and collaborative governance.
EDD requires electronic voting or some way to register votes on issues electronically. As in any direct democracy, in an EDD, citizens would have the right to vote on legislation, author new legislation, and recall representatives (if any representatives are preserved).
Technology for supporting EDD has been researched and developed at the Florida Institute of Technology, where the technology is used with student organizations. Numerous other software development projects are underway, along with many supporting and related projects. Several of these projects are now collaborating on a cross-platform architecture, under the umbrella of the Metagovernment project.
EDD as a system is not fully implemented in a political government anywhere in the world, although several initiatives are currently forming. Ross Perot was a prominent advocate of EDD when he advocated "electronic town halls" during his 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaigns in the United States. Switzerland, already partially governed by direct democracy, is making progress towards such a system. Senator On-Line, an Australian political party running for the Senate in the 2007 federal elections, proposed to institute an EDD system so that Australians can decide which way the senators vote on each and every bill. A similar initiative was formed 2002 in Sweden where the party Aktivdemokrati, running for the Swedish parliament, offers its members the power to decide the actions of the party over all or some areas of decision, or alternatively to use a proxy with immediate recall for one or several areas.
Liquid democracy, or direct democracy with delegable proxy, would allow citizens to choose a proxy to vote on their behalf while retaining the right to cast their own vote on legislation. The voting and the appointment of proxies could be done electronically. The proxies could even form proxy chains, in which if A appoints B and B appoints C, and neither A nor B vote on a proposed bill but C does, C's vote will count for all three of them. Citizens could also rank their proxies in order of preference, so that if their first choice proxy fails to vote, their vote can be cast by their second-choice proxy.
Many political movements within representative democracies seek to restore either some measure of direct democracy or a more deliberative democracy, as well as consensus decision-making (rather than simply majority rule). Such movements advocate more frequent public votes and referendums and less of the so-called "rule by politician". Collectively, these movements are referred to as advocating grassroots democracy or consensus democracy, to differentiate it from a simple direct democracy model. Another related movement is community politics which seeks to engage representatives with communities directly.
Some anarchists (usually social anarchists) have advocated forms of direct democracy as an alternative to the centralized state and capitalism; however, others (such as individualist anarchists) have criticized direct democracy and democracy in general for ignoring the rights of the minority, and instead have advocated a form of consensus decision-making. Libertarian Marxists, however, fully support direct democracy in the form of the proletarian republic and see majority rule and citizen participation as virtues. The Young Communist League, USA in particular refers to representative democracy as "bourgeois democracy," implying that they see direct democracy as "true democracy."
A democratic school is a school that centers on providing a democratic educational environment featuring "full and equal" participation from students and staff. These learning environments position youth voice as the central actor in the educative process by engaging students in every facet of school operations, including learning, teaching, leadership, justice, and democracy, through experience. Adult staff support students by offering facilitation according to students' interests.
Sudbury model of democratic education schools are run by a School Meeting where the students and staff participate exclusively and equally. Everyone who wishes to attend can vote, and there are no proxies. As with direct democracy elsewhere, participants are usually only those who have an interest in the topic.
Another tenet of Sudbury schools is giving students the power to choose what to do with their time: individual freedom, freedom of choice, and learning through experience. There are no required classes, and usually there is no requirement to take classes at all. Students are free to choose an activity that they desire, or feel the need to do. They are free to continue activities for as long or short a time as they see fit. In this way, they learn self-discipline, self-regulated learning and self-initiation. They also learn faster and retain more knowledge, thanks to the engagement in activities that they are passionate about. The students at these schools are responsible for and empowered to direct their own education from a very young age. All this is facilitated, supported and managed by the school's democratic framework.
Summerhill School in England has operated a direct democracy approach to decision making for over 80 years and has often come into conflict with the UK government as a result. The school won an appealed to the high court 1999 after it was threatened with closure after which the joint statement confirmed that: "The minister recognised the school had a right to its own philosophy and that any inspection should take into account its aims as an international 'free' school ... both sides went on record as agreeing that the pupils' voice should be fully represented in any evaluation of the quality of education at Summerhill and that inspections must consider the full breadth of learning at the school - learning was not confined to lessons"
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