Subtle effects of Swiss direct democracy

Gregory Fossedal
The two points I’d like to hit on are first, in my experience, to understand the, the beauty of Swiss direct democracy, you have to focus most of all on the subtle and indirect effects. These are actually turn out to be the most important. What Brian said earlier, that the change, giving people the responsibility to vote on their own affairs directly, increases their readiness and their capacity to do so.

I found that, to give you two or three quick examples, I found that in Swiss democracy, politics was a lot less personal. There weren’t the personal attacks, financial attacks, whatever, that you commonly see here. Does that have to do with direct democracy? I think it does because in Switzerland the game is to vote directly on policy rather than having to influence policy through a World Wrestling Federation style choice between two personalities who then are going to cast my vote for two years, four years, six years, or what have you.

Switzerland, to take a second example, has much less controversy about money and politics and much less of an aristocracy of perpetually re-elected elites. I don’t say, “no controversy,” because there isn’t a society where money and politics or the formation of a proto-aristocracy isn’t something of an issue. But the interesting thing is, the Swiss have very few limits on campaign financing, almost no limits, even to some I wouldn’t recommend, such as non-disclosure, in many campaigns. They have very few term limits. And yet, they seem to have results that a lot of us would like to see in our democracy. Does any of this have to do with direct democracy? I think it does because when you have to lobby the people to produce any change, lobbying becomes decentralized. In effect, lobbying isn’t even a, lobbying becomes a misnomer. So that all political activity, which in a representative system is directed at small groups of people, becomes spread out through the whole society. And as the Federalist noted, it’s possible for the People’s representatives to betray their interest but, to paraphrase, it’s much more difficult to sway the entire people to betray their own interests.

In effect, to take a third example, if you were to try to understand the Swiss system by looking at a list of referenda that have passed and referenda that have been voted down or initiatives, I think you would misunderstand the most important point about it, just as if you were to view a list of presidential vetos over history, you would miss an important part of how the presidential veto works. The presidential veto works when it is exercised, but it also works when it does not have to be exercised. The disciplining father who has children that, there are many times I find with my kids, I don’t have to punish. I’d, I’d be less disciplined if I punished them all the time because the fact that I can do it once in a while, on occasions of great need, affects the whole culture of my relationship with my kids. And the same is true between the President and Congress, and seems to be true in Switzerland between the People and their lawmakers and their executives. The fact that on some occasions everything comes back to the bottom line of the People affects and really revolutionizes the whole political culture in ways that you would never appreciate simply to, if you were to read down a list and say, “Well, I like the way the Swiss voted on immigrant rights and I don’t care for the way they voted on taxes” and so on and so forth.

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