Direct democracy

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Direct democracy (also known as pure democracy) is a form of democracy in which people decide (e.g. vote on, form consensus on) policy initiatives directly. This differs from the majority of modern Western-style democracies, which are representative democracies.


  • The milieu in which creativity can be developed is principally the field of culture, and Beuys starts his sociopolitical program in the area of culture, in order to develop from this special angle the concept of equality as well as of democracy and socialism as a genetic process. ...The primary necessity in Beuys' concept of direct democracy is freedom, meaning that every man should be able to completely realize his liberty, for example, his right to a free and equal unfolding of his personality, as is firmly established as a fundamental law in the organization's statutes.
    • w:Götz Adriani, (1979), Winfried Konnertz and Karin Thomas, in Joseph Beuys: Life and Works, New York 1979, pp.221-2; as quoted in: Tate Gallery (1988). The Tate Gallery, 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions : Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84. p. 490 (text online at, 2015)
  • We no longer use the word "democracy" as the founders of our government used it, as meaning a government in which the people not only elect officers but make laws by voting. When we speak of democracy in this sense now, we add the adjective "direct"—meaning government by the voters directly rather than by agents chosen for the purpose of discovering and enforcing the voters' will.
  • Why direct government has grown in favor. This increase in the power of the voters has been due to two main causes: (a) dissatisfaction with the way that the representatives actually conducted the government; and (b) the growth of a political interest among the voters which makes them want to take more part in government. Dissatisfaction with representative government began to appear early; representatives often would not make the laws for which there was a large popular demand; and they were frequently corrupt, and made laws for the benefit of private persons and corporations by granting them concessions and privileges of all kinds. Owing to the spread of education and the development of cheap newspapers and books, large numbers of voters now think that they can decide many matters better than their agents can.
    • Charles Austin Beard, Mary Ritter Beard, American Citizenship (1917) pp. 162-163.
  • The initiative and referendum are schemes for allowing the voters to make laws directly without using the legislature or asking its advice at all and to veto laws. The old idea was that the voters could not themselves know enough about government to decide policies, but that all they could do was to select representatives who should give their attention especially to government, relieving the voters of the task of bothering about anything except occasional elections of agents. Direct government, however, presupposes that the voters have made up their minds or can make up their minds on all matters, and that the officers whom they choose are merely agents to carry out their will. The system has an educational advantage through the publicity given to every proposal.
  • There is... a peculiar interest... in surveying the institutions of those countries which in our own time have carried farthest the application of the democratic idea. In this, without doubt, Switzerland leads the way. The practice of direct democracy has been extended there to an extraordinary degree, and the end is not yet.
  • The introduction of the referendum in Switzerland constitutes one of the chief victories of the principle of direct government by the people over that of representative government. No one has defended direct government with more power and conviction than Victor Considérant, the advanced republican of 1848, who was one of the precursors of legislation by the people. "When a people," he wrote, "has once assumed the exercise of its legislative will, no section, old or young, rotten or sound, will be able to contemplate encroachment upon it. Divisions will be blotted out and parties united one with another.
    So long, however, as the people, like an inert mass, is moved by the governmental machine external to itself, which each party can use to impose its will upon the nation, so long will furious party strife, intrigues, coups d'Etat and revolutions remain the order of the day."
    ...In 1850, a German publicist, [Moritz] Rittinghausen contributed to La Démocratie pacifique articles upon "direct legislation by the people or true democracy," in which the same ideas were developed.
    Neither Considérant nor Rittinghausen was a prophet in his own country.
    • Félix Bonjour, Real Democracy in Operation: The Example of Switzerland (1920) pp. 75-77.
  • Among the modern democracies which are true democracies, Switzerland has the highest claim... It is the oldest, for it contains communities in which popular government dates farther back than it does anywhere else in the world; and it has pushed democratic doctrines farther, and worked them out more consistently, than any other European State. ...the method of Direct Popular Legislation, i.e., law-making by the citizens themselves and not through their representatives... opens a window into the soul of the multitude. Their thoughts and feelings are seen directly, not refracted through the medium of elected officials.
  • Most of the American State Constitutions depart further from English precedents than do those of the Australian States, for the former vest the elections both of judges and of administrative officials in the people, and many of them contain provisions for direct popular legislation by Initiative and Referendum. Yet as the American States give a veto to the State Governor, and limit in many directions the power of the Legislatures, the Australian schemes of government seem, on the whole, more democratic than the American...
  • Athenian democracy was different from the much later American form, not only because it was the expression of a single city-state but because it was a direct, rather than a representative democracy. To us, looking backwards, it may seem imprudent to invite all citizens to vote on all major initiatives, but Solon was right to appreciate that no Athenian freeman could allow himself to be left out of anything.
    • Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003) Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • The Swiss Referendum and Initiative are sometimes advocated on the ground that they bring back direct democracy in the only manner in which this can be adapted to large political communities. Now, personally, I think the "Referendum" (not the "Initiative," to which there are many special objections) may, under certain conditions, be a useful supplement to (not a substitute for) parliamentary legislation; though we must not expect that an institution which has grown up under the special conditions and traditions of Switzerland would prove equally well adapted to other soils and climates. But I certainly think that no argument for it whatever is to be found in the fact that it means "pure and direct democracy." If history can teach us anything—and it is from the details of history, and not from the wide formulæ of biological sociology that we can safely learn— it teaches that "pure" democracy may be very corrupt, and that it is an unstable form of government unless under the simple conditions of some small thinly-populated country, with a stationary population, not altered by immigration, and therefore tenacious of old habits. At its very best, pure and direct democracy is open to the objection that in many matters it is likely to be excessively conservative and adverse to progress. At its worst, there seems hardly a limit to the folly, corruption, and tyranny to which it may give rise.
    All government must be government by the few over the many. The only question is, how are the most suitable few to be found? The ideal government must always be" aristocracy," in the literal sense of the term—i.e. government by the best—"the best" meaning not the best scientific investigators, nor the best artists and poets, nor the best generals, nor the best and most pious divines, nor the most eloquent orators, nor (though they may think it) the best and most successful journalists, but the best for the special work of making and administering laws.
  • So long as Vox Populi, Vox Dei, was believed to be an aspect of cosmic truth, the stress of reforming effort was laid upon getting the Populus as big and as powerful as possible, and upon this the Radical doctrine followed, that a democratic franchise meant an intelligent and a progressive state. The doctrine did not rest at the just and proper claim that such a franchise was a necessary condition of such a state, but it related the one and the other in bonds of cause and effect. The error survives to this day amongst the many suggestions made from time to time as to our methods of government. The mechanical reformer is not yet at rest, and his newest discovery is that the representative system has been a failure, and that we must have direct democracy. This is no place to discuss either the representative system and its alleged failures, or direct democracy and its alleged successes; but it is impossible to see from our own experience how the substitution of the latter for the former will have any revolutionary and practical results. For, if the masses were so vigilant, so disgusted with representative authority, so clear-sighted regarding political aims, so interested in the making of the statute-book, as the friends of direct democracy assume, it is difficult to believe that those qualities could be entirely set aside at election times and that public opinion, when it has the opportunity, should show so few indications of that self-possession and independence of thought which we are asked to believe it would show if it voted on the details and not on the principles of legislation.
    • Stanton Coit, Ethical Democracy: Essays in Social Dynamics (1900) pp. 66-67.
  • Wolff is logically confronted by a choice between a world of robots subject to authority, on the one hand, and, on the other, a world of human beings subject to no authority whatsoever but responsibly exercising their moral autonomy. … Consequently Wolff fails, as he must, in his attempt to show that authority and autonomy could be reconciled in a state governed by unanimous direct democracy. … In attempting to build the edifice of anarchism on the foundations of responsibility and moral autonomy, Wolff is ultimately self-contradictory. For it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that except in extraordinary circumstances that are rarely attainable in our world, if we wish to maximize autonomy our only reasonable and responsible choice is to seek the best possible state. If a democratic state is the best possible state (as probably few anarchists would deny), then the most responsible way of exercising our moral autonomy is to opt for a democratic state.
    • Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 3 : Anarchism
  • The unhappy conflict in political thinking between representative government and direct democracy, which has been so much a feature of recent political discussion in the United States, is due more than anything else, I think, to a misunderstanding of what democracy means. A genuine democracy is not a mass-meeting, a mob, or a wildcat system of direct nominations. A genuine and efficient democracy must have two elements: responsible and representative leadership and the final lodgment of control over that leadership in the instinct, the common sense, and the conscience of the whole people. When this country was young and the Nation was forming after the Revolution, there was great confidence in leadership, and very little confidence in the good sense of the mass of the people. There were reasons for this which grew out of certain distressing experiences during the critical period of American history which immediately preceded the making of the Constitution in 1789. The Constitutional Convention itself had for a chief object the curbing of what was again and again described in the debates as "the turbulence and follies of democracy."
  • The characteristic of direct democracy is its deep-seated distrust of representative leadership, and its superior confidence in the instinct, the common sense, and the conscience of the mass of the people. There is no State which I visited in which this modern political tendency can be traced to its conclusion and partial confusion better than in the State of Oregon. Oregon is the native haunt of direct democracy.
    • Frederick M. Davenport, "The Use and Abuse of Direct Democracy—The State of Oregon," (July 21, 1915) The Outlook (1915)
  • The matters upon which the mass of the people, necessarily bent upon a livelihood, should ordinarily be called upon to pass judgment, are few and simple and fundamental. The perplexities of government and progress should be worked out by responsible representatives. But it is also true that the people should be left in the position easily and flexibly to register their opinion upon any matter whatsoever if it becomes necessary as a check upon reaction or because of a treasonable disregard by their representatives of their interests. And the spirit of the West is once more sound, from the broad standpoint of freedom and right, in its feeling that as things are in America, a measure of direct democracy is necessary in order to make representative government workable. But the initiative and referendum should be employed with restraint. It should be the gun behind the door, the remedy in emergency, the quick-acting but ultimate check upon substantial error and wrong.
    • Frederick M. Davenport, "The Use and Abuse of Direct Democracy—The State of Oregon," (July 21, 1915) The Outlook (1915)
  • It is an important laboratory not just for a collection of ideas, plural, but for an idea, singular, that unifies these innovations: the most populist (in the objective sense of the word) democracy in the world.
    Switzerland answers the potential question of the political scientist or citizen: What happens if we place so much faith in the people that we make them lawmakers? The much earlier experiences with this far-reaching democracy, as in the city-states of Greece, took place without the benefit of advances in communication that make it possible to have popular government without having government by physical assembly.
    The great dynasties in Europe and Asia... have much experience. But the Swiss have much experience with Democracy. America is great in space... But Switzerland is great in time; a bold experiment sweeping back almost a millennium.
  • The number of which the House or Representatives is to consist, forms another and a very interesting point of view... In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every American citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
  • The representative system, Mr. Chairman, was not adopted in Massachusetts as a question of expediency. Representative government was adopted, sir, because no direct democracy in the history of the world ever had proved a success, and the framers of our Constitution knew that to be so. They knew that where democracy had been allowed to go uncontrolled, democracy had degenerated in the first place into anarchy, and from anarchy into a despotism. How long did it take the people of France, when they first burst asunder the barriers which had held them in check for centuries, to progress through the stages of constitutional government as laid down by their constitutional assembly and as embodied in the Constitution which they adopted, to anarchy? How long was it after they had established the Commune and other tribunals not properly elected, mere voluntary associations to direct the public effort, before under such domination they confiscated estates, they murdered their King, they killed their nobles, and thus prepared through such a process, the path for a Napoleon? If that example is not sufficient for us and for those who advocate direct democracy, how long has it taken Russia to go from an autocracy all the way through the stages of a popular frenzy in attempting to vote prosperity and happiness into their midst? How long has it taken them, Mr. Chairman, to go through those stages and arrive under the dictatorship which... is to treat those who do not agree with and who do not support this provisional government with the sword and with the bullet? In other words, Mr. Chairman, the advocates of direct democracy cannot point to a time in history or to an illustration in history when direct democracy in a large and heterogeneous community has done anything else than to degenerate into anarchy and to point the way for the despot and the autocrat who has ground those who were seeking liberty under his iron heel. So I say advisedly that the framers of our Constitution adopted representative government not as a question of expediency; they adopted it advisedly in the light of history, because, sir, they had an idea that a body of representative men chosen by the people, meeting annually in election, chosen from among the number of the people who appeal most to the voters as being capable of representing them,—that body so chosen should then meet in a proper form, far removed from the clamor of the market-place, in a higher atmosphere than the disturbing elements which every-day life and contact and attrition have upon the momentary judgment of a large crowd of irresponsible people, that such a body so chosen, sitting in such an atmosphere would be more apt to pass legislation in the interest of all the people of the community, regardless of class, regardless of color, regardless of all of the other handicaps which have retarded the development of particular groups in the community, whether social or industrial, that such a body of representative men, in other words, would be more apt to express in the form of legislation the real, sound, fundamental will of all the people than any other method that could be devised for framing legislation.
    • William S. Kinney, "Speeches favoring and opposing the Initiative and Referendum," Debates in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention 1917-1918, Vol. 2, (1918)
  • Opponents of democracy are continually raising two sets of objections which they deem fatal. First, they say, you cannot get the general will of the people really dominant in politics, whatever forms of franchise or election you devise, and if you could, the welfare, even the existence of the state would be constantly imperilled. Secondly, they say, if a sound democracy is possible, it can only be confined to so small a group of men as to be unfitted to the needs of modern society which demand large states. Hence, they proceed to argue, though a nation may be furnished with a tolerably complete democracy in its constitution, the complexity of a modern civilised government converts it into a practical bureaucracy, controlled, as all governments have ever been controlled, by an oligarchy of rich men.
    It is primarily because the Swiss Constitution claims to have provided an escape from this paralysing imbroglio, and to have attested experimentally the possibility of democracy, that it deserves the attention of other nations which are trying to be democracies and failing.
    The direct participation of a simple citizen in acts of government, and the application of the federal principle, are the keynotes to Swiss democracy. By means of the former it is claimed that those monstrous excrescences of "party," known as bosses and machine politicians, cannot thrive, while the latter prevents the growth of those not less dangerous abuses that proceed from the complex machinery of a highly centralised government in a large state. Let the body of free citizens not merely elect men who shall execute their will in making laws and in other acts of government, but retain the right of directing what laws shall or shall not be passed, what acts shall or shall not be done by their representatives; these checks upon the abuse of power by individual representatives or parties are, it is contended, necessary and sufficient securities for the free play of the general will.
  • Everywhere, in the commune, the canton, the Confederation, the persistent dominant desire of the people to retain direct control over specific acts of government, and to refuse plenary powers to elected representatives, gives special character to Swiss democracy.
  • I have no intention of discussing the merits or demerits of the two systems, but the fact that direct democracy is old and our self-limited democracy is new must not be forgotten. When it is proposed to emasculate representative government, as was done by the Third Napoleon, or to take from the courts their independence, it may be a change for the better, as its advocates contend, because almost anything human is within the bounds of possibility, but it is surely and beyond any doubt a return from a highly developed to a simpler and more primitive stage of thought and government. A system of government which consists of executive and people is probably the very first ever attempted by men. Among gregarious animals we find the herd and its leader, and that was the first form of government among primitive men, if we may trust the evidence of those tribes still extant in a low state of savagery who alone can give us an idea of the social and political condition of prehistoric man.
  • We may study experiments in direct democracy in Athens and in Rome more than two thousand years ago and at a later time in some of the mediæval Italian cities. This examination will reveal the fact that representative government on a large scale is a modern development originating in England, and also that while the people began long ago to place limitations on the once unrestrained power of the crown or the kingship, it was in our Constitution that a people for the first time put limitations upon themselves, which has hitherto been considered an evidence of unusual intelligence and of a high civilization.
  • In a free-market economy, the consumer is king: labor unions don't run things, business people don't run things, bankers don't run things, politicians don't run things, but the success of a business depends on how people spend their money.
    • Ron Paul, "Twitter Q&A With Ron Paul" (May 14, 2015) In response to the question "What is your opinion on direct democracy, where the citizens themselves make law, rather than elected representatives?"
  • The contrast between the Persian state—and by the same token the late Imperial Roman, Bismarckian, or modern European state—and the Greek polis is far from the only theme that dominates this story. A familiar contrast is between Athenian and Roman notions of freedom and citizenship. The Athenians practiced a form of unfiltered direct democracy that the Romans thought a recipe for chaos; the Romans gave ordinary free and male persons a role in politics, but a carefully structured and controlled one.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Introduction: Thinking about Politics
  • Every student of political science knows that the American system of government codified in the Unites States Constitution is not actually a "democracy" as that term was defined in the eighteenth century. In fact, most of the American Founders considered "pure" democracy like that practiced in ancient Athens—where the people ruled themselves directly through votes of a popular assembly—to be a particularly unstable and dangerous form of government. ...despite this aversion to democracy and the absence of a popular assembly dictating policy by majority vote in the United States, American government could be said to embody the principle of "popular sovereignty"... Over the course of the nineteenth century, Americans... increasingly applied the words democracy and democratic to America's government and society. ...By the twentieth century, the term democracy had largely ceased to carry the stigma of mob rule... In essence, the term democracy was gradually redefined...
    • Loren J. Samons II, What's Wrong with Democracy? (2004) University of California Press
  • In the shift from direct democracy to representational democracy, the printed book became an embodiment of thought for the physically absent author; and so the popular art form of the popular book and the pamphlet re-presented ideas and contributed to the public space of political philosophies of the Enlightenment. Television, however, now brings forth this new kind of public space, and it calls into being this new world, not of the educated citizenry in a republic, but of the electropeasantry in the state of Entertainment. Recall how people stopped singing in pubs when they brought in the TV set, and you will appreciate the new passivity in which people stop voting for their representatives as TV takes over the electoral campaigns.
  • The original American democracy in the New England towns was "direct" democracy. In its first form this cannot be restored. But to keep our political life sound, we must find substitutes for it. So far the only effective one suggested lies in a further development of the initiative, referendum, and recall,—devices of direct democracy which also were originated in early New England.
  • In the Jacksonian period... American democracy triumphed in theory over all enemies. But real political practice fell far short of true democracy. The new machinery which was devised for Jacksonian democracy [as opposed to Jeffersonian democracy] made the people's rule too indirect. It suited better the secret rule of Privilege. It was particularly fitted for the skillful manipulation of "bosses," the agents of Privilege.
    About 1900, the conviction grew among political reformers that the first need of our Republic was more direct democracy, with less power in "political middle-men"—direct nominations by the people in place of indirect by bargaining conventions; a direct check upon officials after election by the recall; direct legislation by the initiative and referendum; direct "home rule" for cities, in place of indirect rule at the State capital; direct election of United States Senators; and a direct voice by women in the government.
    This need of more democratic political machinery was to be met, in the early stages, almost wholly by State action, not by National law. It was fortunate that such could be the case. One State moved faster for direct legislation; another State, for woman suffrage; while those States which did not move in any matter, and which might have had drag enough to prevent any movement in the beginning in a consolidated nation, had at least to look on with interest while their more far-sighted or more reckless neighbors acted as political experiment stations.
    • Willis Mason West, The Story of American Democracy, Political and Industrial (1922) pp. 663-664.

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