Do you participate in power?

Freedom means participation in power. America is ostensibly the land of the free, but this page examines how much civic freedom you have in comparison to the citizens of Switzerland. You may be surprised to learn that the Swiss enjoy substantially more civic freedom than American citizens.

The following are excerpts from the book "Direct Democracy in Switzerland" by Gregory A. Fossedal.

Sovereign Acts in Direct and Representative Democracies

Act of sovereignty Swiss "direct democracy" U.S. / European "representative democracy"
Pass a law People may have direct vote (initiative) People have no direct role
Challenge a law passed by parliament or congress People can do directly (referendum) People cannot do directly; a law can be challenged only through their representatives
Ratify a treaty Requires popular vote No role for popular vote at all unless government desires it as a special measure
Alter the constitution People can do directly with no elite support (initiative) and must approve for any change to be made Some elite must initiate (Congress or convention) and a direct popular vote plays no role (ratification is by 3/4 of state legislatures)
Choose chief executive People vote only through parliament People vote directly (in some countries) or more directly (in the U.S.)
Send criminal to jail People through a randomly selected jury People through a randomly selected jury
Confer citizenship Popular (communal or cantonal) vote Decision of magistrate (usually non-elected)
Declare federal law unconstitutional Arguably impossible; in practice happens only when constitution is altered—which requires a popular vote Can be done by non-elected court (U.S., Germany, France, other)

(p. 256)

Gregory Fossedal
Gregory Fossedal

Switzerland answers the potential question of the political scientist of 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 the advances in communication that make it possible to have popular government without having government by physical assembly.

(p. 7)

"The Swiss Tribunal cannot declare any Federal law or part of a law to be invalid as infringing some provision of the Federal Constitution… This principle does not commend itself to American lawyers."

… Why is it that in Switzerland the justices of the federal court have been so restrained?

Swiss federalism is a partial answer, but not satisfactory. Other countries enjoy various degrees of federalism, but regardless, have found irresistible the march of legal authorities to judicial constitutional review. Federalism can cut both ways. In the United States, judicial review was established in Marbury in what on the surface was an act of judicial restraint. The Dred Scott decision enforcing slave-holder rights even in non-slave states was put forward—whether fairly or not—as a matter of states’ rights.

The culture of republicanism—the ethic of keeping powers small, ambitions in check—likewise is a part of the answer, but seems unsatisfying. Chance or necessity normally puts someone in a position to expand the powers of an office or institution, and human nature being what it is; some occupant eventually embraces the opportunity. As well, this consideration too often makes it necessary for the judiciary to exert power on its own, in order to block a greater accumulation of abuse of power by another. If the Supreme Court of the United States has acted with a heavy hand in matters such as Dred Scott, it has also blocked abuses of powers by Presidents Richard Nixon, William Clinton, and others, and been a bulwark for defending individual rights of all sorts against federal intrusions.

…To understand why the federal courts have almost no authority to void federal law and only limited authority to void cantonal statues, it is helpful to remember who may: the people. This right to review laws, and change the constitution itself, is in use continuously throughout Switzerland. Thus the concept that a particular body would be necessary to protect the constitution is somewhat alien. To do so would be to protect the people from the people, the constitution from its authors. Of course, Swiss professionals engaged in international business, especially those familiar with the United States, understand the concept of judicial review as practiced here and in some European countries. Even for them, though, the notion is regarded as somewhat confused—and troublesome. For working-class Swiss, one must explain the doctrine many times to get it across, and even then one has the feeling that the concept is regarded as somewhat antidemocratic.

(pp. 72-74)

"It is free," James Bryce wrote in Modern Democracies, "from even the suspicion of being used for private gain." The statement remains true today. Yet there are few checks of the type that in more corrupt states are deemed essential merely to restrain marginally the force of legislative malfeasance. Swiss members of the Congress fill out no forms disclosing their income and holdings, and release no tax records. Even their campaign spending is a private affair. Candidates normally (as a practice, not a legal requirement) report totals to the party but not the public. Nor are such figures leaked to journalists. [Editor: This is no longer true. In a 25 May 2010 interview, Andreas Gross remarked that Switzerland needs campaign finance disclosure laws.]

(p. 77)

Among the Swiss parliamentarians, there is a kind of despair about the utility or possibility of manipulating other elites for political gain: What would be the point? That "despair," of course, is another way of saying, healthy respect for and orientation toward the people. Politics, then, is less tactical and more substantive. There are, interestingly, fewer appeals to "the people," and still less to opinion polls, than in a typical Western democratic assembly. In these, the regular citation of the people shows in a certain way that the people are taken into account, but also, that their voice will not automatically be heard. For many votes and issues, the people will never have a direct voice; hence their voice must be leveraged, inferred, or "brought into the discussion." In the Swiss assembly, there is a constant, pervasive knowledge that on anything controversial, the people will, willy-nilly, have the final say anyway. They are no more cited or appealed to than the air we breathe; they are simply there.

As for opinion polls in particular, there are remarkably few of them, and the Swiss of all walks of life hold them in contempt. "Polls reflect what men and women think when they are telephoned late at night and asked to spout off an opinion about something they may have no influence over," as one parliamentarian put it. "It is not the same as when you ask citizens to decide what the country will do: Then there is an informed choice, made in a serious and deliberative manner."

(p. 80)

Respect is obvious when listening to the Swiss people talk about their legislature, particularly as part of the broader system of government. Even more noticeable, however, is the respect of the lawmakers for the Swiss people. A Western politician who is defeated at the polls or who simply cannot get a particular message he desires passed into law will instinctively blame some flaw in the system, the people, or even the press–drawing any conclusion, almost, except the one that their initial idea itself was flawed. "We didn’t do a good job of communicating what we wanted to do with this bill," is a common explanation. "Our message didn’t get out," usually become of the "special interests." Sometimes the low opinion of other voters is stated straightforwardly, as in Senator Jack Danforth’s 1984 proclamation that "the problem with this congress is that it is too responsible to the will of the people." Normally it is couched in more indirect terms, but the underlying assumption that the voters cannot sort out the demagogic appeals of others remains.

Swiss politicians take aim more often not at the messenger or their opponents, but at themselves. Andreas Gross is a well-known member of parliament and an author. He came to prominence by sponsoring an initiative to abolish the Swiss militia system of near-universal male service. If anything, one would expect an articulate and cosmopolitan member of parliament like Gross to have a certain stubbornness about admitting a mistake, and a great facility to explain how his ideas had only been thwarted by the Rich, the Military, the Press, or some other cadre. Instead, when asked what he thought of the initiative system given its rejection of his proposal some years ago, Gross said simply, "It is a good system—the best anyone has found. The people rejected our initiative, and therefore, it was wrong." When this happens, Gross continued, "you have to look at your own proposal again, see where you may have gone wrong."

(pp. 81-82)

Always interesting, and in fact also instructive, are the somewhat off-beat proposals that occasionally come up for a vote. Most of these are placed on the ballot through the initiative process, which allows any citizen to bring a constitutional amendment before the country, provided he can collect sufficient signatures to show some serious level of support. Only rarely do such measures—such as 1977’s proposed prohibition of automobiles on the second Sunday of every month—pass.

One is tempted to dismiss them as insignificant, and in direct legislative terms they are. They may also illustrate, however, that some of the system’s most important impacts may be indirect or unseen. The power to bring a strongly felt proposal on to the national agenda, and have it debated in the press and voted on by the people, is an important one, and one the Swiss cherish. It defuses passions, and gives the angry and the enthusiastic an outlet for their energies. "Many of the people who worked on our initiative," as Andreas Gross put it, "become active in politics or in the society in other ways. Even though we were defeated, they were not alienated." A movement that has its measure rejected by Congress or vetoed by the president is likely to feel they were thwarted unfairly, that the will of the people was twisted by lobbyists and slick communicators. The Swiss whose initiative does not pass may feel some of this anger, but knows that his case has been judged directly by the people. He may feel he has helped educate the society, and probably has: All the articles about immigration policy in the Swiss press, while they have not enabled anti-immigration measures to pass, have provided information that the proponents are eager to see disseminated. The educational process works in both directions, too. Often the movements that propound radical ideas are able to refine or moderate their positions and become more effective. Politicians who misread the popular mood, meanwhile, can go back to their office and rethink their approach.

(p. 101)

There are, finally, all the cases in which the initiatives and referendum process "created a law" without a specific referendum ever taking place. This happens when the politician in Bern, sensing popular concern and anticipating an initiative by the citizens, proposes and enacts a law addressing the problem before the initiative is necessary. Or when legislators, knowing a certain proposition they may admire will inevitably be overturned by a facultative referendum, vote against it themselves. This can happen in a purely representative democracy too, of course, but notice how the effect is stronger and more direct in the case of initiative and referendum. The member of Congress who casts an unpopular vote may jeopardize his own reelection, but of course the voters will render their judgment on that based on hundreds of votes. A Swiss parliamentarian likewise can vote for an unpopular measure out of personal conviction or misguided judgment, but he has even less inventive to, since the measure, if truly unpopular, will almost certainly be overturned. It is a much higher certainty than in systems where elites have greater discretion to substitute their own judgments.

(p. 102)

This does not mean that public opinion polls are wrong, or meaningless—it just means that they measure, normally quite accurately, something that may differ significantly over time or over different conditions. Nor are the people fickle in this, any more than water is capricious because it is a fluid at one temperature and a solid at another. They are, in fact, wise, economizing on their need for information and thought about subjects depending on whether their opinion will have some tangible influence. Members of a jury treat a case differently than members of the general public, and by the same token, voters and lawmakers regard it otherwise than if they were mere bystanders.

(p. 106)

The Swiss system of citizen legislation facilitates a much quicker and more accurate matching of public policy to the will of the electorate. The difference between it and purely representative democracy is illustrated if we imagine a system in which you could pick only which grocery store someone else would shop at for you—or, still further, if you could select between three or four carts that had been previously filled by people at the store, but could not stock the carts yourself. It is possible, particularly if leaders are respectful of the popular will, to communicate what groceries you want to the cart fillers. Over time, you might find one of them consistently putting eggs into the cart. But even if he did, he might also tend to purchase $20 worth of Spam, which you don’t want, or to buy 2 percent milk instead of your preference, skimmed. There would only be very rough approximations of your desires, though. And in a system of representative elections, remember, the voters are only able to communicate with the "cart stockers" once every few years and when they do, rather than giving elaborate instructions they vote yes or no for one of them, accepting all the choices they didn’t like in the bargain.

Imagine if, after acclimating yourself to this system, you were suddenly allowed to make periodic trips to the grocery store yourself, and pick out your own items. You would have an immense feeling of relief as you knew that, from time to time, you could take care of some of the neglected items. Sophisticated grocery stores would watch carefully to see what you picked out when you had a chance, and use this as a signal to improve their own purchases. In thinking about the Swiss system, and watching it in action, one feels something of the sense of exhilaration that that shopper would feel. It is far from perfect, and there are many mistakes made. But the mistakes you make are yours. It is a gulp of oxygen; a sip of undiluted democratic spring water.

(p. 113)

…if the general presumption is in favor of the most direct means of popular control, subject only to checks on the people as might seem necessary, the Swiss experience seems to suggest the need for such limits is small indeed. We may conclude with Viscount Bryce that the Swiss have used their power of initiative and referendum "responsibly and well," and certainly without gross disaster or inconvenience. Having asked dozens of Swiss what the worst result initiative or referendum has produced, most of them answered "none" if the question meant has there been a single grave error or result. The respondent will then point to a particular referendum he or she did not agree with—but will hasten to add that this is only their personal opinion.

(p. 115)

Mrs. Buhrer, who (we later found out) was going into the hospital for surgery the next day, sensed my interest in this connection between consensus politics and direct democracy. She explained, "We view ourselves as trying to bring about…"—she looked over to a colleague for the right word—"trying to facilitate choices, do what the people want. It is our job to do this well and offer intelligent choices."

Hugo Butler told us a few days later about the case of a church in Stein, a small Rhein town, where an influx of Italian immigrants took place one year. The next year, the Italians were invited to the church council meeting for its budget discussion. When the subject of fees and tax payments came up, the Italians, joined by a few of the native Swiss, voiced their preference not to have any. The rest of the members tried to explain this would mean drastic changes in the church service but the money was voted down anyway. With Swiss logic and efficiency, the discussion then turned to planning for a year in which there would be no funerals, no weddings, and an absence of many other things the people were used to. The participants now understood that their actions had consequences and that they were in charge—but regretted what they had done with their authority. The fees and tax assessments were restored and the meeting went back to its previous track.

Thus community government in Switzerland does not merely operate on the philosophy of giving the people what they want. Because a member of a community, one of the people, is not indifferent to the question of whether the people’s understanding of what the options are is informed, or corrupt, or misled, or intelligent. It is, rather, a style of leadership that accepts the citizen as sovereign, and therefore looks to the improvement and perfection of the citizen as the best (and ultimately, the only) way to bring about effective solutions. Rather than merely reading about self-government, however, the Swiss learn, as well, by doing.

(pp. 126-127)

This dependency on citizenship is one of democracy’s great strengths in Switzerland, but would make this system awkward or even dangerous if applied uncritically in other countries—countries where the capacity for real self-government, for popular leadership, has grown somewhat weak through lack of use or a lack of real power.

This does not mean the Swiss system, or major parts of it, may not be usefully emulated. It does mean that those who do will have to give some thought to creating the kind of citizens needed to carry out the steps of this sensitive political dance—a system that extols majority rule but is constantly yielding, willingly, to the minority; where laws are clear and simple, yet are there as tools to be handled with flexibility and common sense.

(p. 132)

When asked an open-ended question about their reasons for being proud to be Swiss, most named some element of the political system, such as direct democracy. This answer, provided by nearly 60 percent of Swiss, was larger than any other two answers, and almost as large as the next three most frequent answers combined. It is evidence…that the Swiss have a deeply shared ethos—and an optimism about "politics" perhaps unmatched in the world.

(p. 246)

Is there an important difference between Swiss democracy and the others? If we consider the discussion of democracy among Western and developing-country elites, we certainly would come to this conclusion.

Among U.S. and European elites, for example, there is little interest in political reforms that would increase popular leverage over government. While many reforms are under discussion, they tend to be elitist in nature. Some favor term limits, some favor spending limits, some favor greater power to local and state governments or to private economic interests—but none places much emphasis on increasing popular access and elite accountability to the whole people. Instead, the stress is on different arrangements of power within the existing array of elite institutions. This is not to say none of those reforms would be beneficial, and surely some of them would be bad—but as a matter of fact, none of them even focuses much on popular leverage. As Tocqueville noted, many "democratic" episodes and reform periods are merely "weapons" used to defend the old regime.

When a group of elites does discuss the Swiss system of initiative and referendum, it is generally with nervous contempt—such a system would not be desirable other than under the highly specific conditions of Switzerland, and certainly, the people in the country under discussion "may not be ready for it yet." This applies even to the leadership class of such highly developed countries as the United States and Europe. Their proposals are always couched in terms of "the people," as are must appeals in a democracy, representative or direct. But any direct means of empowering the people to run the government is considered unimportant, even contemptible. The only type of popular empowerment that holds much interest is that which is achieved indirectly, by placing greater control on some other elite group. Thus a system already choking with indirection and elite maneuverings is to be reformed through indirection and maneuvering.

(pp. 252-253)

When an American or European votes, he more or less accepts a train of a hundred of a thousand votes that her or his representative promises to cast—and that assumes that the promise is kept, and covers only the issues that can be known, and forced to discussion, in the election. When the Swiss votes, he accepts a large degree of judgment from his representative—but he also knows that many of that representative’s decisions will be referred back to him for deliberation. And that his word, unlike that given to a pollster or congressional surveyor, has the potential to become the solemn law of the country.

(pp. 257-259)

The maxim of indirect or representative democracy is, "Write your congressman." The maxim of direct or populist democracy is, "vote yes (or no)."

(p. 260)

Representative democracy is a noisy affair, because so much of the game involves even getting the attention of some elite, or forcing that elite to take action. It is a game in which other elites (big business, lobbyists, the press) seem to wield the only clout. Direct democracy is more quiet, and more characterized by appeals to reason. Anyone who doubts this need only witness a Swiss parliamentary or federal council election, read the campaign materials and press coverage of various referenda, or even simply compare the amounts spent on campaigns and public affairs persuasion and what it is spent on.

(p. 260)

How "The People" Are Heard

Type of popular consultation Swiss "direct democracy" U.S.-European "representative democracy"
Federal or state (cantonal) elections—frequency 3-4 times a year in a typical canton—and more frequent "feedback" through referenda 1 time a year or less, on average—no other formal, systematic feedback
Direct votes on policy—approve or defeat acts of elites Frequent: 2-3 times a year for national or cantonal policies Infrequent; less than once a year; only in certain states; and none on federal policy
Given the above, the nature of most campaigns for office or legislation and of campaign spending is… An ongoing, continuous effort to persuade voters—low key, and much of it coming through the press. Nearly all focused on the public, and on the public as an end in itself. Substantial fear of lost credibility or seeming shrillness, since any temporary victory in elite institutions can be overturned, and long-term losses of credibility with the public may cause immediate losses. Short, concentrated bursts of highly emotional attempts to get the public’s attention for a key vote—electing a president or representative—the results of which will then be permanent for 2, 4, or 6 years. Much focus on elites, much on public—but that focused on the public is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. The game is to sway legislators by raising their fear of the public.
Initiate legislation Citizen can do so directly (initiative) or through his representatives Citizen can only do so through his elected officials
How does a citizen’s vote make itself felt on the national laws? In large clumps, by voting on representatives, but also in small, focused decisions on dozens of policy questions (through referendum) Only in large clumps—citizen can only make his voice felt by voting for officials who have taken dozens or hundreds of positions.
Official blocking a piece of legislation can be circumvented by… Initiative, referendum, and the influence that the threat of these works on all elected officials. Only by throwing the official out in a multi-issue election several years hence, or swaying a vast number of elites (such as two-thirds of the Senate) to act.
Lawmaking body or committee that can avoid a vote on a subject has killed it? No—see above. Yes, in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Give the above, a lobbyist who spends a fortune influencing a bill through Congress and the White House, or preventing it, has won—his money is well spent. His money may be well spent, but may not be. Especially if the measure is significantly contrary to the public interest, he now faces having all his work overturned in a referendum challenge. The lobbyist has spent his or her money well. The new law is law (or not law), assuming it is not overturned by another elite body, such as a federal court. The public has no direct recourse—angry citizens must try to make enough noise to convince lawmakers to overturn the decision.

(pp. 258-259)

Edit history

Jun 2008 – compiled by Joshua Pritikin