Direct Democracy: Political back-seat driving, without licence and under the influence?

Bianca Rousselot_Thomas Milic_Adrian VatterBianca Rousselot, Thomas Milic and Adrian Vatter



Chances are, if you were in the “remain” and not in the “leave” camp, you probably think the referendum on Brexit should never have been called. And you probably wouldn’t be alone in that. Think back to the time when French and Dutch voters dealt a death blow to the EU Constitutional Treaty in the 2005 referendums. There were probably a good many people who thought the same thing then. As Qvortrup (2014) puts it, direct democracy “in recent years has thwarted cherished ideas and many a politician’s pet project”. 

It therefore seems a very valid question whether the people, the average Joes, are actually clever and competent and informed enough to make decisions of such importance! Do they understand the questions put to them, and their implications? And, even worse, do they actually vote on these questions, or do they use referendums as a substitute confidence vote to punish the incumbent government? Or do they simply follow the recommendations of whomever they happen to trust, be that the government, their preferred political party, or their mate down the pub? If so, what impact does new information have on their opinions and decisions? Do people actually process and accept new information, and if they do, from what sources? And do they do so even when new or more accurate information contradicts the beliefs they already hold? Does new and challenging information break into their social media bubble, and if it does, does it matter whether it’s fake news, so common in these times of post-factual politics? And speaking of which – do referendum outcomes not simply go to the highest bidder anyway? I.e. the player in the game who has the most resources for campaigning, putting spins and real or fake information out there, or analyzing people’s social media-generated data for target advertising? But wait a minute – can campaigns actually really influence voters to vote against their own interests, i.e. incorrectly? Think back to the EU integration votes in the early 1990s and 2000s, when Denmark repeated the referendum on Maastricht (1992 and 1993) and Ireland repeated both the vote on Nice (2001 and 2002) and Lisbon (2008 and 2009), each time reversing the outcome. Which of the outcomes was the “correct” one in each case? The first ‘no’ vote, or the second ‘yes’ vote? And why were the outcomes different the second time round? Did people change their minds? If yes, why? Or was it a question of turnout? Did more people participate the second time, or less, or other people? Regarding turnout, wouldn’t it be better if less people participated, i.e. only those who really have a clue about what’s going on? You could say that output legitimacy would certainly be higher then. But what about representativeness, or input legitimacy? Shouldn’t all people have a say, really? Isn’t that the whole idea of direct democracy? Who actually decides what people can vote on, and why? Why can the government call a referendum on certain issues, but not on others? Who has the agenda setting power here, and what effects does that have? And if you make all that fuss, and people decide, shouldn’t what they decide be binding? Maybe that depends on where people think sovereignty lies. Is it ultimately in the hands of the people, or their elected representatives, the parliament? And what about the constitution, and international law and all that stuff? Can the people decide on something that contradicts these? If they can’t, or if what they decide isn’t implemented in the end, what does that do to citizen attitudes towards democracy? “Whatever I vote, nothing changes anyway”, doesn’t sound very reassuring, does it? But if people have all that power and can vote on almost anything they like, as in Switzerland, what does that do to the economy, or taxation? Wouldn’t people just vote for increased income redistribution, Robin Hood-style? Or would they just lower their own taxes? And in the end, wouldn’t this all not just lead to mob rule, or a tyranny of the masses, because they are all egoists, and xenophobic ones at that? Why do people vote the way they do, in the end?

Fortunately, all these questions have been empirically addressed in the literature on direct democracy. However, important research gaps remain. In our recent research provocation published in Policy & Politics, we provide a state-of-the-art analysis of the field of direct democracy. Based on this analysis, we develop a research agenda highlighting the most important stumbling blocks and stepping stones in the research to date and make a range of theoretical, empirical and normative recommendations to advance the field of study. Trust us – we’re Swiss. We know what we are talking about.

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Vatter, Adrian; Rousselot, Bianca; Milic, Thomas, The input and output effects of direct democracy: a new research agenda, Policy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15200933925423 (Free to access until 31 July)

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

When the People Speak and Decide – Deliberation and Direct Democracy in the Citizen Assembly of Glarus, Switzerland

Making policy information relevant to citizens: a model of deliberative mini-publics, applied to the Citizens’ Initiative Review

Resistance or resignation to welfare reform? The activist politics for and against social citizenship

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s