The Case Against Direct Democracy

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

No, the title of this post has nothing to do with the vote in Switzerland on banning the wearing of a burka in the public space. At the time of writing, I don’t even know the final result of that vote. I would like to make a more general point here as Swiss people are so proud and happy about our direct democracy. Rather uncritically in many ways. All things considered, I agree that direct democracy nets out as a positive for Switzerland, but for the sake of argument, I would nevertheless like to challenge this mainstream thinking. So if you only want to read things you already agree with, this may be the moment to stop reading or to unsubscribe.

To begin with, the simple reason why Swiss women were only allowed to vote in 1971 is because men had previously voted against it. Switzerland was one of the last European countries to introduce women’s right to vote, and the only one were this was done by a popular vote. (For people who think that the political discourse has become more cynical in recent years, I advise to take a look at the campaign billboards from those campaigns).

Brian Paler, an esteemed colleague and internationally active political consultant, recently said in a guest lecture in my class at the University of Zurich that direct democracy nurtures populism. Referendum votes can be used by populist leaders to advance their discourse against the political elite and to promote the feeling of “us versus them.” If you think about it, this actually very much applies to Switzerland. It was the vote on the European Economic Area which was at the beginning of the Swiss People’s Party as we know it today. A billionaire from Zurich had toured the country for a year campaigning against the treaty. Within a few years, the Swiss People’s Party more than doubled its vote share, expanded to the catholic and French speaking cantons, and became the biggest party of the country, and today is still campaigning against the classe politique.

In Switzerland, we are calling direct democracy the “people’s rights.” And yes, there are some examples of spontaneous grassroots movements of citizens who launch initiatives or referendums, and then go on winning at the polls. But much more often, the so-called people’s rights are actually the tools in the hands of interest groups, political parties, and associations. Ballot initiatives are launched for fundraising purposes, as a vehicle for an upcoming election campaign, or to influence the parliamentary process. A fellow campaigner recently told me that referendums are a great “tool” to mobilize the base. Parties hold internal votes on what topic they should launch a ballot initiative on, which goes to show that launching the referendum is becoming a goal in itself with little to do with actual content of the initiative.

And then there are the limits of direct democracy. I often run focus groups as a basis for referendum campaigns and it happens regularly that respondents admit that they are actually not equipped to make these decisions. I often tell my clients: Many people have opinions about issues, few people have knowledge about issues. Everybody has an opinion about banning the burka, but few people have know-how about international tax treaties. Yet, we are voting on it. In a few months, the Swiss people will vote on the Covid-19 Bill. Do we really all have enough of an epidemiological background to make that call? I doubt even (our) politicians have.

Lastly, it is also noteworthy that these popular votes are made in a media context where less than a handful of outlets are dominating the market. With respect to paid media, there is often a fundraising imbalance of 1 versus 2, or more, with a total lack of transparency where the funds are coming from. So, in that sense, it is almost funny how Swiss people think that they are making their own decisions, when in fact those decisions are being made for them by people like me.

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