Direct Democracy or Representative Government

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Direct democracy can be applied in three different forms. The first is known as the initiative. Regular people, the voters, can take the problems we are facing in society and create laws that may eventually end up on the ballot. First off, there has to be a petition that is developed and sent to the attorney general for approval.
Second type of direct democracy is the recall. Recall enables voters to remove an elected official from their position for any reason before their term has ended. Just as the other one do, the recall starts with a petition.
The next form of direct democracy is the referendum. Referendum is the way in which a law that has already been passed can be stopped, except for urgency laws, which immediately go into effect. The referendum petition must be circulated and completely signed within 90 days of the passage of the law. The required number of signatures it takes to make the referendum valid is the same as it is for the initiative. Once this is completed, the law is suspended until the next election. If at that time voters change their minds they are able to revote.

Types of Direct Democracy

Two major types of direct democracy are:
Government by common mass assembly (classical democracy)
 Government by plebiscite ( popular democracy)
Government by Common Mass Assembly
In this type of direct democracy, all qualified adult citizens are members of the legislature and have the right to participate directly in the making of laws. Periodically, a mass meeting of qualified adult citizens is held at a central location in the political community. This common mass assembly functions as the legislature of the community, levying taxes, appropriating money from the public treasury, enacting other laws, and providing for the enforcement of its laws and policies. The mass legislative assembly may elect a number of important officers.
Government by common mass assembly is most effective in political communities where the population is very small (consisting of a few hundred persons or less), dwells in a small and compact territory, and does not have to cope with the many complex problems which typically confront a modern democratic government. This type of direct democracy, in short, works best in a small community where public problems are few and simple.

Government by Plebiscite
The word “plebiscite” means a direct vote of the people to decide an issue of public policy–an expression of the popular will on a policy issue by direct ballot of all qualified voters participating in the election. “Plebiscite” is roughly synonymous with the term “referendum.”
A system of government in which major issues of public policy are decided by plebiscite, or referendum, is referred to as “government by plebiscite,” or “plebiscitary democracy.” In this type of direct democracy, elections are held to enable the general citizenry to vote on proposed legislation. Rather than leaving the enactment of legislation to a smaller body of elected representatives, the voting citizenry at large is called on to determine, by plebiscite, whether particular public-policy proposals will become law. When the government proposes a major piece of legislation, a nation-wide or community-wide plebiscite, or referendum, is held and the voters vote Yes or No on the proposed legislative bill. If a majority of the voters voting in the plebiscite vote Yes, the bill becomes law. In short, laws are made by direct nation-wide or community-wide popular vote.
Plebiscitary democracy was the type of governmental system that operated in France from 1852 to 1870, when Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) was top leader and ruler of the French nation. Hence, plebiscitary democracy is often referred to as “Bonapartism.”

Direct Democracy and Representative Government

American author, Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute in Washington, John Haskell, who has written several articles on presidential and congressional politics, develops a devastating critique of direct democracy by exposing the central flaw in populist thinking. Contrary to the beliefs of populist advocates of direct democracy, the popular will cannot be interpreted from the results of the plebiscite. He presents a defense of representative institutions that brings to bear, in an understandable way, the findings of public choice scholars. Haskell covers the clash of ideas between populists and constitutionalists throughout American history. He follows the development of direct democracy during the twentieth century, especially the dramatically increased use of initiatives and referenda in the last decade.
“A common complaint about representative democracy is that it creates a distant class of lawmakers who will often collude with vested interests, or become so detached from the lives of the general public, that they will make decisions that the public do not support. This is only possible because of the exclusivity that inevitably arises around a relatively small number of representatives. By contrast, such corruption of decision-making is impossible if every citizen is an equally powerful participant in the process. There is simply no better way of making the debate about an issue and the thinking about a solution more transparent than throwing it open to every citizen. “

Rational Ignorance: Problem with the Citizen Legislators

Because of little transparency in the initiative-writing process, citizens with small legal experience are not able to draft poorly written laws, which sometimes come with unintended consequences. Another problem is that the majority of voters think that their vote will not influence on the outcome of the elections. This can be connected with the absence of instrumental competency, which is the amount of professional and technical knowledge that is used in the professional field.
On the one hand, some of direct democracy critics offer as a reforming implementation to restrict the number of constitutional amendments or changes. That can be passed by initiative, and instead limit initiatives to statutory changes that can be amended by the legislator after some period of time.

But, on the other hand, if the public had to make more decisions and become more involved in political life, there is a chance that they would be better educated. This may foster a sense of civic duty and commitment to political system.

Direct Democracy and Minorities

Many critics point to direct democracy’s potential to hurt minority groups. In practice, direct democracy is governed by its most popularly understood principle: majority rule. Namely, the side with most votes wins, whether it is an election, a legislative bill or a contract proposal to a union. The majority vote decides. Thus, when it is said that “the people have spoken” or “the people’s will should be respected”, the people are generally expressed through its majority.
French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, who is famous for his works “Democracy in America” and “The old Regime and The Revolution”, on the analysis of democracy’s requirements, says that
“Yet the majority rule can’t be only expression of “supreme power” in democracy. If so, the majority would too easily tyrannize the minority. While it is clear that democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it is equally clear that it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse using its power to violate the basic and inalienable rights of the minority. For one, a defining characteristic of democracy must be people’s right to change the majority through elections. This right is the people’s “supreme authority”.
The minority, therefore, must have the right to seek to become a majority, and possess all the necessary rights to complete fairly in elections- speech, assembly, association, petition- since otherwise the majority would make itself permanent and become a dictatorship. For the majority ensuring the minority’s rights becomes a matter of self-interest since it must utilize the same rights when it is in minority to seek to become a majority again.”
Tocqueville sees the real direct democracy as a system where there is a favorable atmosphere for competition between majority and minority.
British philosopher John Stuart Mill, expressed in his work “Theory of Liberty”, that democracy requires minority rights equally as does majority rule. As democracy is convinced the minority rights must be protected no matter how singular or alienated that minority is from the majority society.
On his essay on liberty, Mill wrote that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others”. This is the “no-harm” principle.


The feature which distinguishes direct democracy from other forms of government is the idea of agreement and the key to agreement is discussion. It is impossible to reach an agreement without discussion, because it is not right to think that everybody will have the same opinion on all matters. But, it is very possible, that through discussion an agreement could be reached by all members. Representation, on the other hand allows a select few to make decisions in their own best interest which is not necessarily the best interest of the society. However, direct democracy is not the perfect method to produce a union of the community. For a direct democracy to work, face to face communication between all members of the community is needed. The only way this is possible is to meet in large groups.  The answer the question, “What is Functioning direct democracy?” is that for a democratic society a politician must, in an honest fashion, convince the electorate that democracy is what they need, if they are to get what they want. The concept of democracy is inseparable from power.
Direct democracy is not impossible in all situations, but in order for in to exist the following two characteristics must exist- The organization must be local, (limited in members) and the opinions of the members must be similar to each other. While these conditions are often found in a small organization, when looking at a country, these conditions are impossible to meet.  In a mixed society direct democracy would lead to ineffective management, unwanted inefficiency and political instability. While In a representative democracy, the representatives rely on political compromise to resolve conflicts, and develop policies that are flexible enough to meet shifting circumstances.
Is direct democracy workable? Well, when we are not able to define or give a notion whether the event is useful for a nation or not, we look at the history.  As the history shows, a functioning direct democracy is real only where the population shares the same goals and aspirations. The most important aspects of the democratic way of life have been the principles of individual equality and freedom, as we still have today. Even in antiquity they believed in such values such as respect for humanity, for laws, responsibilities, freedom of participation and to participate in political life.
In conclusion, direct democracy could engage and encourage the education of the public; avoid the potential conflicts of interest that politicians face; enable voters to choose the exact policy platform that they desire; enhance transparency; and make corruption more difficult. It is certainly a better principle means of allowing a nation or community to govern itself with a fair distribution of power. Though there are many weaknesses compared to the system of representative democracy, this does not mean that the hybridization of the systems, which is taking place in several parts of the world, cannot offer many of the advantages that I have outlined above.

Hripsime Asatryan

Alexis de Tocqueville “Democracy in America”1835/ 1840
John Stuart Mill “On Liberty” 1859

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