Besides cuckoo clocks, chocolate and watches, Switzerland is world renowned for direct democracy within its political system. At the federal level, citizens can propose changes to the constitution through initiatives or ask for a referendum on any law passed by the parliament. Swiss citizens are more powerful than citizens in representative democracies such as the United States. This rule by the people is greatly admired, and certainly more democratic than the American system by which nine judges on the Supreme Court can eventually rule a law unconstitutional.
The admirable Swiss system has certain drawbacks. Many complain that the Swiss vote too often, that there are too many referendums. For example, in the ten years between January 1995 and June 2005, Swiss citizens voted 31 times on over 100 federal questions besides many more cantonal and municipal questions.
Beyond complaints about Swiss voting too often and the cumbersome process of obtaining the necessary number of signatures to start the process, two recent examples of people’s voting also highlight what may be considered the limits of direct democracy. The British vote on Brexit and the Colombia vote on a peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are striking examples of how direct democracy may not lead to the results desired by the government or experts.
One of the reasons for the difference between the positions of governments and experts and the body politic is that voters are looking for easy answers. Often these answers are tied to the political figures putting forth their positions. In Britain, voters were surely swayed by the charismatic mayor of London, Boris Johnson. In Colombia, people who voted for President Santos in the last election favored the peace deal. People who opposed him were against the peace deal.
In the cases of Brexit and Colombia, the votes on the referendums vote were not necessarily tied to the essence of the question. British citizens were more worried about immigrants overwhelming the island instead of the economic impact of leaving the European Union. In Colombia, voters were against granting leniency to the FARC more than they were concerned about ending a conflict that has raged for over 50 years with 250,000 deaths.
There is enormous uncertainty in Great Britain after the Brexit vote. Prime Minister Theresa May has not settled the issue by issuing a time frame. In Colombia, recent Nobel Peace Prize winner President Santos has reached out to the FARC and other groups to try to keep the conflict stalled, but, again, there are no guarantees. “Brexit means Brexit,” and the anti-peace treaty vote in the Colombia referendum cannot be ignored, however difficult implementation will be.
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” Winston Churchill famously declared. These two recent examples do raise some questions, but, agreeing with Churchill, the alternatives are certainly worse.
Which brings us to the upcoming American election. The United States has had democratic elections for over 200 years. I have tried to avoid the subject of the current campaign in conversations because, although there is much to be said, silence is one way of saying that we have gone beyond rational narratives. Republicans chose their nominee; let them stew with that choice. As for the Democrats, there is much to be said, but the threshold of discussion has not yet gotten to an intelligent level. The second debate again showed the disappointing level of discussion.