Direct Democracy: The Case Against.

The most obvious case of direct democracy is through referenda. In a referendum every person is given the right to vote directly on a proposition, and depending on the law of the land that referendum will have either a positive or a negative outcome.

I say depending on the law of the land, for in Australia, for instance, we are hamstrung by Federation, so that, in order for a referendum to be successfully passed, it must not only receive a majority of the vote, but it must receive a majority of the vote in a majority of the states. Therefore the weight of a vote in Western Australia, for instance, is more than that for a vote in either Victoria or New South Wales.

Nonetheless this is not something that is associated with all referenda. But it is true that referenda notoriously fail. People do not like change, as we have seen in Australia with the vote for a republic, however much people may be in favour of such a change at the time that a decision needs to be made the conservative nature of voters tends to win out.

The status quo is maintained. So direct democracy does not result necessarily in change. Even if it did result in change, it may not be change for the better. Of course it may be that direct democracy can effect positive change, just as representative democracy is capable of doing, but it is not certain that it will.
Direct democracy on a smaller scale might have more success. In Western Australia the Local Government Act provides for Special Electors Meetings. These meetings provide an opportunity for the electors of the shire to call a meeting and debate a set topic or topics determined beforehand, upon which everyone present gets to vote. It is in effect a form of direct democracy, although the decisions of such a meeting are not binding on the council. Nonetheless councils must consider the decisions made at such meetings.

So on a local level, as well as on a national level, we can see how direct democracy operates. It ought then to be seen to be an effective, if not fool proof form of democracy.

I am concerned however that it is not at all a democratic form of decision making. For instance, at a Special Electors Meeting not everyone is required to be present. Not everyone necessarily votes. The vote is therefore not necessarily representative of the voting public, as some of the voting public might absent themselves for one reason or another. Moreover it is a form of democracy that relies on the minority being discriminated against. The lesser vote is denied. Of course this would seem to be what democracy is intended for, but I wonder if it is actually desirable in that way.

How do people vote? At such a meeting, it is often the best oratory performance that wins the day. It is the most popular, or the most fashionable, idea that succeeds. But is an idea good simply because it is the most popular or the most fashionable? Is coca cola intrinsically good because people choose it more than they choose other brands of cola? This does not seem to me to be certain at all. Nor, in a direct democracy approach, are all those people involved in the decision making involved to the same extent. Someone only has to get a few people to agree to an idea, and then to convince the majority of a mob that it is a good idea, for it to be successful. The people presenting these ideas are not necessarily reflective of the broader community, they may not be entitled to any greater position than anyone else, but if they can get the Murdoch Press interested in their cause, for instance, then they have a greater chance of pushing through their agenda. It is not so much democracy, as rule of the mob. And rule of the mob is notoriously dangerous.

Wikipedia writes the following, "This development strains the traditional concept of democracy, because it does not necessarily give equal representation to each person. Some implementations may even be considered democratically-inspired meritocracies, where contributors to the code of laws are given preference based on their ranking by other contributors." A society of unequal equals is undesirable, and ultimately results in the type of state dictatorship that certain communist countries have become. It could be argued, for instance, that China has a type of direct democracy.

I have argued in other places that the two party preferred method of democracy results in the least democratic form of government. I'm less inclined to say that now, for I fear that direct democracy models could plausibly become less democratic than the two party preferred method that is in place in most western democracies.
Nonetheless the two party preferred method is unrepresentative and undemocratic.
Take for instance the election of the American President. There might be ten candidates of the Republican Party who seek to stand for the Presidency. Let us say that each of these people has ten percent support within their party, and let us be rash and say that the part represents the voting public who vote for the republican party, even though this is not the case. Only 50% of eligible Americans vote at elections. Let us say that of that 50% half vote for the republicans and half vote for the democrats. So 25% of all people vote for the Republicans. And of that 25% one tenth are committed to each candidate that is standing for the Presidency. So only 2.5% of people support the actual candidate nominated by the part for election to the Presidency.

In the same way people are elected to office in Australia. They are not representative of a view, or views, they are simply put up by a small group of people within the party, and people vote for them, without really thinking what they stand for at all.

A much more democratic form of democracy is proportional representation. Under proportional representation the value of one vote is equivalent for everyone. If there are 100 elected representatives, and if 30% of the vote is for Labor, and 30% is for Liberal, then each party will get that many representatives. If 20% vote green, then the Greens will get 20 representatives. If 5% vote socialist, the five socialists will be elected to Parliament. Of course if One Nation attracts 5% of the vote, then they too will have five representatives.

No one party would govern it its own right, and even the minority view would be valued, and would need to be negotiated with. No longer would two parties dominate the Australian political scene. Over time you could see other changes, such as a split in the Labor Party, whereby the left formed it's own party, as did the right. The left would no longer have to compromise its principles and remain silent on party political issues.

This does not mean it will be a perfect system of government. But it would be a step towards a better, more representative and democratic parliament. It would encapsulate the idea of one vote, one value. It would effectively empower minorities, not so that they dominate politics, but so that they will at least be heard in the parliamentary debate.

Proportional representation offers a real way forward, unlike the untried and untested direct democracy model, that cannot ensure the value of a person's vote, or that a mob mentality will not overtake sensible debate.



The truth that a good orator can succeed at carrying policy through in a direct democracy model is exampled by Barak Obama, who, for all his faults, is an excellent speaker. This does not make him a good policy maker. But he was elected to the Presidency of the US based upon his oratory skills, at least in part. The election of a President, a directly elected President, is an example of direct democracy at work. Just exchange a president for a policy. A policy has to come from somewhere, just like a president does. Direct election is the preferred model of direct democracy. Direct democracy does not concern itself with the fact that not all voices may be heard, it isn't concerned with the fact that prisoners are excluded from the discussion, or the old and infirm. It is a place for the best speakers to dominate, for the most heavily involved in shoring up votes to win the day. Really it isn't much different to parliament, except that instead of elected representatives we have unelected representatives pushing policies.

A couple things

a) referrenda --- you haven't even touched upon the biggest issue. Who gets to frame the question? Control of that "little" detail can determine whether the question succeeds or fails as well as what other issues (that could not pass by themselves) could ride the coattails of a measure sure to pass.

b) proportional representation --- very democratic but you had better look at the downside. As long as the threshhold for representation is low parties will fragment as there is no price to be paid for that as long as staying above the threshhold.

Much more than "minorities getting a say". With a highly fragmentes political scene (10-30 parties) it becomes impossible to form a government without including at least some of the special ierest parties. You can bet your bottom dollar that "One Nation" WILL hold some seats, etc. The problem you might not expect is that of the larger parties not only will obvious enemies refuse to sit together in government but because party splits tend to be acrimonious those otherwise close parties won't either.

Want to see this in action? The prime example is Israel, proportional representation and a threshhold of something like 2-3%. That's what you get, a zillion paties and any government forced to include at least a few of the "kook" factions and so include in its platform a few things detested by the majority (the "kooks" price).

c) The US system of electing presidents.
You've totally forgotten that we are a federation of states. Our votes for president are weighted so that the smaller (population) states have relatively more say. We do report on the "popular vote" but you don't get elected by having the most popular votes but by having a majority of the "electoral votes". It is quite possible to win even a majority of the popular vote but lose the election. Not just a theoretical possibility. It has happened and there have been many other very close calls where a slightly different outcome in one state would have swithced who won. One of those times was recent enough to have been in the lifetimae of almost everybody reading this.

The oldest direct democracy is also operating as a federation, and it has been rather successful.