Democracy’s Catch 22

The exact definition of democracy is highly debatable. A perusal of the differing conceptions of democracy, however, does reveal several reoccurring themes: government by the people, for the people; majority rule; freedom; equality; and respect for the individual and their rights. Criticism of democracy in the ‘free-world’, even on a base level, is not a new phenomenon, however, recent general elections in the US and UK have sparked increased debate on whether the practice of democracy matches up with theory. In his 1989 work, Democracy and Its Critics, Alan Dahl concludes that no country on earth stands true to the basic, yet utopian foundations of democracy. This may indeed be true, yet would a move toward direct, Athenian-style democracy be beneficial? Or, would it in fact lead to a loss of individual freedom and equality?

Image courtesy of rytc , © 2009, some rights reserved.

In 2007 the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party launched an initiative to halt the ‘Islamification of Switzerland’ by proposing a ban on the construction of minarets. In 2009, the proposed policy was successfully passed in a referendum, with 57% of voters (and 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons) in favour. Despite this, the government stood against the ban, believing it to be detrimental to Switzerland’s world image as a tolerant democratic state. This ban, however, was passed in a purely democratic process and supposedly reflected the will of the majority. According to the highly anti-immigrant stance of the SVP, reflected in General Secretary Martin Baltisser’s words, “This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power[1], and a victory for democracy and the power of the people.” People across the word were shocked at the adoption of such a policy and, although it did not provoke a violent backlash, many of the 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland feel discriminated against and believe that their right to the free practice of their religion has been limited.[2]

It is arguable that Switzerland is the only country in the world that comes close to meeting the ‘criteria’ of democracy. Such criteria, however, must apply to the entire population, not just 57%. By impinging the rights of any group, regardless of how small, individual freedom is expunged from the system and we are left with a ‘tyranny of the majority’. It is fair to criticise countries like the US, which given the two party make-up of its political arena and the existence of the Electoral College system, is highly undemocratic and out-dated.[3] However, there is a substantial difference between allowing the people to elect others to represent their interests and actually putting state power directly in the hands of the people. Indeed, a large percentage of voters (almost half in the minaret case) remain either ambivalent or not opinionated enough to actually vote during the referenda. Referenda ranging from proposed smoking bans to the ‘alternative vote’ have almost always attracted far greater interest from extremist positions. It’s doubtful that if everyone registered to vote and had participated in the minaret referendum, it would have passed into policy. By putting greater power into the hands of extremists, the very democratic values that supporters of radical referendum results preach are in fact eroded and society is polarised. In the words of Irish Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, referenda are “…not very democratic and are, by and large, never what they are supposed to be about.”[4]

In addition to these moral issues, ‘extreme’ or direct democracy can also put a spanner in the works of the state apparatus, hindering efficiency, civil rights, and the control of budgets. In Switzerland, the Canton of Vaud was the first to introduce female suffrage in 1959. However, it was not until 1990 that the Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden finally gave women the vote. Given that Switzerland is one of the wealthiest and, in many ways, the most progressive countries in the world (indeed in the ‘lottery of life’ the Economist places Switzerland as the top country in the world to be born into[5]), it is shocking that women only received the vote in Appenzell 60 years after universal suffrage was granted in Turkey and 72 years after the UK. This is not down to Switzerland’s civilisational development, but rather, it is directly attributable to the inefficiencies of the referendum system. Ultra-conservative groups were far more prone to vote and therefore received disproportionate representation. What other Western (and some Eastern) countries were able accomplish federally in the early 20th century took Switzerland many more years and also represented a much more painstakingly long process (running from 1959-1990).

Switzerland, however, is by no means the only case study available. In 2011, The Economist published an article entitled ‘The perils of extreme democracy’.[6] Here the publication argues that despite California being an exceptionally wealthy and dynamic state, it now has one of the worst credit ratings in the US and is worryingly deep in debt. The citizen legislature has been a disaster in that it has struggled to make the executive branch work and many initiatives have either limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget, while some are so poorly conceived that they achieve the opposite of their intent.[7] Despite proclaiming that Swiss democracy has been a success, the article suggests that direct democracy in California must been taken as a warning to the rest of the world and that referendum-based systems can lead to political disarray and economic disaster, even in the most affluent of states (although some might argue that part of California’s success is rooted in the freedoms provided by direct democracy).

The potential of direct democracy is clear. For the moment, however, it remains a utopian pipedream. Advocates can provide valid arguments in its defence, yet a lack of political education and interest among large segments of potential voters means that referenda play into the hands of extremists. This results in the undermining of the cherished principles that direct democracy ought to institutionalise and proliferate. It is a sad but honest conclusion that in the words of Winston Churchill, ‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’



[3] Leading politicians such as Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton have supported the elimination of the electoral college system, with Clinton stating “We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago.” (http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/264347-obama-clinton-backed-reforms-to-electoral-college-after-bush-v-gore)

[4] http://www.thejournal.ie/varadkar-referendums-are-not-very-democratic-340909-Jan2012/

[5] http://www.economist.com/news/21566430-where-be-born-2013-lottery-life

[6] http://www.economist.com/node/18586520

[7] ibid