What is Direct Democracy?


Democracy revision
Democracy class slides

Democracy and political participation - key questions
  1. Explain the nature of democracy
  2. Define & exemplify direct democracy
  3. Define and explain the use of referendums
  4. Describe representation & explain representative democracy 
  5. Understand the nature & types of power, legitimacy, consent & authority
  6. Explain pluralist democracy 
  7. Explain liberal, parliamentary & presidential democracy
  8. Describe & exemplify citizenship & political participation
  9. Analyse the differences between direct & representative democracy, including their relative merits
  10. Analyse why referendums have been used more often to resolve political issues
  11. Evaluate whether referendums are a good way of resolving issues
  12. Explain & exemplify how & why political participation has fallen
  13. Identify & explain way participation could be increased. How desirable are there proposals?
  14. How democratic is the UK?
  15. How representative is the UK political system?
  16. Explain & critically assess methods of making the UK more democratic

The Concept of Democracy

1.A Core Definition
o         Democracy is a form of government in which the major decisions of government and  the direction of policy behind these decisions - rests directly or indirectly on the freely given consent of the majority of the adults governed.
o         Democracy as a political process is obviously a matter of degree - depending on the areas of society open to political debate and participation and the number of adults qualifying as citizens within the political system.
o         For example, Britain had major elements of democracy before women got the vote on an equal basis with men in the 1920s but the act which gave women the vote made Britain more democratic. The HRA, devolution, reform of the Lords etc. have all increased democratic government in the UK.
2. Consent and Participation
o         The democratic way of life presupposes that human beings who are affected by decisions should have some say in influencing those decisions.
o         The democratic approach, as distinct from the authoritarian approach, invites open expression and discussion of needs, options, and alternatives.
o         Citizens may express their views by joining political parties or joining pressure groups
o         Modern societies are pluralistic – made up of numerous competing and co-operating groups, such as trade unions, business organisations, cause groups etc.
3. Freely Given Consent  
o         Freely given consent exists when there is no physical coercion or threat of coercion employed against expression of opinion;
o       when there is no arbitrary restriction placed on freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly;
o        where many parties compete for citizen’s votes
o         where there is no monopoly of propaganda by the ruling party;
o      and where there is no institutional control over the instruments or facilities of communication, like TV.
3. Informed Consent
o         A positive condition for the existence of an effective democracy is the active participation of the citizens in the processes of government.
o         The more informed and better educated the electorate, the healthier the democracy is.
o     Participation is all the more essential as government grows in size and complexity and as individual citizens may be tempted to succumb to a feeling of ineffectiveness in the face of anonymous forces controlling their destiny.
4. Scepticism
o         The possibility of abuse of power both in ordinary and extraordinary times reinforces another  positive condition for a healthy democracy. This is an intelligent scepticism concerning claims to absolute truth, the possession of charisma among leaders, or the infallibility of experts.
o         As indispensable as experts are, the assumption of both democratic thought and common sense is that one does not have to be an expert to evaluate the work of experts. In a democracy the citizen is and should be king.
5. Grass-roots Democracy
o         By involving the greatest number of citizens in different ways and on different levels in political action, plural centres are developed to counteract the tendency to expansion and centralisation of government. For example, devolution of power.
6. Checks and Balances
o         The system of  government in a democracy  must embody checks and balances on  power. Common checks and balances include :
o   A codified constitution
o   a Bill of Rights,
o   two elected assemblies which check each other,
o   a separation of powers between the three branches of government, strong regional and local government,
o   a Freedom of Information Act.
7. Elections and Representative Democracy :Parliamentary  and Presidential
o         Elections are the formal procedure by which public offices are filled and specific policy measures are decided.
o         Elections are  procedures for choosing officers or making binding decisions concerning policy by the vote of those formally qualified to participate.
o         Elections are the central feature of democratic government serving crucial purposes –
o         choosing a representative assembly, or assemblies,
o     holding governments accountable. Elections hold individuals and governments responsible for policies pursued during their period in office. Thus in the USA in 1992, President Bush was not re-elected and in the UK in 2010, the Labour Party were ejected.
o         allowing the citizens a choice of policies.
o        In many countries elections also have a symbolic and educational function. Citizens derive a sense of satisfaction from participating in the selection of their governmental leaders, and the selection of leaders through regularized election procedures appears to give the government a base of support- a sense of legitimacy - among the mass public. In the election campaign voters have an opportunity to learn about key issues.
o      The Presidential system of government exists in the United States and predominates in Latin America.
o         It usually features the presidential form of government, a separation of legislative and executive branches, and
o         firm fixed dates for the election of both the legislature and the president.
o         Individual voters may vote for president either directly or formally, as in the United States, by voting for members of a special Electoral College which then elects the president.
o         The mass electorate also votes directly for legislators.
o         The parliamentary system of government is followed in Britain and in most countries of western Europe and the Commonwealth of Nations.
o         Elections in a parliamentary system are linked with Prime Ministerial & Cabinet government and a fusion of the executive and legislative branches.
o         The voters elect members of the legislature, or parliament.
o         These legislators, in turn, elect a prime minister, usually a member of the legislature. Other political leaders are chosen by the prime minister to serve in the cabinet as ministers. Together with the prime minister, they serve as the formal leaders of the executive branch
o         The executive is checked by Members of Parliament, especially
o         An official Opposition
 8. Direct Democracy

 o         A Referendum is

§  'A vote of the people on a proposed law, policy or public expenditure'.

§  An arrangement whereby a law or policy does not go into force until it has been approved by the voters. 

§  Normally proposed by the government of the day. 

§  Citizens can accept or reject Government’s proposals. 

o         An Initiative is

§  An arrangement whereby citizens\ propose a law or constitutional amendment and have it

o         The arguments for referendums and initiatives:

                   o   They encourage participation and act as an educational force.
o   They offer constitutional protection. 
o   They enable precision in posing and answering questions about what the voters want.
o   They are valuable on issues involving the transfer of parliamentary powers, when divisions of opinion among the people do not follow party political lines and when a nation makes a change in a system of election. 

9. Majority Rule and Minority Rights
o         Majorities can do everything except deprive minorities of their civil rights, including freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly and the right to a fair trial. 
o         Minorities can do everything within the context of these human rights to present their case, but are bound by the outcome of majority decisions. 
o        No one is to be denied political standing on the grounds of an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender.
10. Democracy and Freedom
o         So long as there is recognition of the area of personal privacy that may not be invaded by public power, freedom faces no intolerable threats. This area of personal privacy is sometimes referered to as civil society - an area beyond government control and embracing , for example, sexual orientation.
o         There is great allowance for, and tolerance of, differing ideas and practices in all areas of personal life in contemporary democratic society.
o         This is particularly true in the United States - e.g. constitutional right to bear arms
o         Balancing individual rights against one another in light of the legitimate need of communities for safety and security promises to be one of the great democratic challenges of the 21st century.
o     Rights and liberties may be restricted but when democratic government moves to restrict or abridge civil rights;
1.       it does so slowly and reluctantly.
2.       Second, if and when the exercise of a civil right creates a clear and present danger of a social evil that threatens other human rights, it is abridged only for a limited period of time and is restored as soon as normalcy returns.
3.       Finally, the restrictions imposed by government agencies on every level in a democracy are subject to appeal, review, and check by an independent judiciary.

11. Some Problems of a Democratic Society
o         Mass Media - it is especially difficult to define the role of the press and other mass media in a democratic society. Everyone believes that the press should be free within the confines of laws against personal libel, the scope and severity of which vary from country to country. But beyond this, the issue of ownership of the press is crucial to determining its degree of freedom and its responsibilities to the society in which it functions.
o         For obvious reasons a free press cannot be a government-owned press. In democratic countries the press is usually privately owned; yet the very nature of this ownership sometimes shapes its news or may result in the exploitation of stories for sensational purposes. Ideally, a free press should be a "responsible" press, responsible to truth, balanced, fair, and careful to distinguish between reports of fact and statements of political opinion, but these terms are difficult to define—let alone realise—to everyone's satisfaction.
o          Money in Elections In the USA in particular, money dominates election campaigns and this produces serious dilemmas. Relying on private funds brings charges of corruption. Limiting the rights of individuals to spend their money on supporting parties or individuals, limits free speech. The answer is regulation ,but the details are difficult to agree on.

Arguments for & against DIRECT DEMOCRACY

(Arguments in favor of direct democracy tend to focus on perceived flaws of representative democracy)

  • More informed & educated citizens. As a result of the involvement directly in the process of policy making, it could be argued that as a result citizens are likely to be become better educted through participation
  • Better representation. Individuals elected to office in a representative democracy tend not to be demographically representative of their constituency. They tend to be wealthier and more educated, and are also more predominantly male as well as members of the majority race, ethnic group, and religion than a random sample would produce.
  • Conflict of interest. The interests of elected representatives do not necessarily correspond with those of their constituents. An example is that representatives often get to vote to determine their own salaries.
  • Corruption. The concentration of power intrinsic to representative government is seen by some as tending to create corruption. In direct democracy, the possibility for corruption is reduced.
  • Political parties. The formation of political parties is considered by some to be a "necessary evil" of representative democracy, where combined resources are often needed to get candidates elected. However, such parties mean that individual representatives must compromise their own values and those of the electorate, in order to fall in line with the party platform.
  • Government transition. The change from one ruling party to another, or to a lesser extent from one representative to another, may cause a substantial governmental disruption and change of laws.
  • Cost of elections. Many resources are spent on elections which could be applied elsewhere
  • Patronage and nepotism. Elected individuals frequently appoint people to high positions based on their mutual loyalty, as opposed to their competence.
  • Lack of transparency. Supporters argue that direct democracy, where people vote directly for issues concerning them, would result in greater political transparency than representative democracy.
  • Lack of accountability. Once elected, representatives are free to act as they please. An instant recall process would, in fact, be a form of direct democracy.
  • Voter apathy. If voters have more influence on decisions, it is argued that they will take more interest in and participate more in deciding those issues.

Arguments against direct democracy

Scale. Direct democracy works on a small system. The use of direct democracy on a larger scale has historically been more difficult. Think through some examples, comparisons… Practicality and efficiency. Another objection to direct democracy is that of practicality and efficiency. Deciding all or most matters of public importance by direct referendum is slow and expensive. Again, think this though, that would it involve
Demagoguery. A fundamental objection to direct democracy is that the public generally gives only superficial attention to political issues and is thus susceptible to charismatic argument or demagoguery. What does this mean?
Complexity. A further objection is that policy matters are often so complicated that not all voters understand them. The average voter may have little knowledge regarding the issues that should be decided. Think of some examples, who might be able to benefit from this?
Voter apathy. The average voter may not be interested in politics and therefore may not participate.
What might happen as a result?
Self-interest. The voter will tend to look after his or her own interest rather than considering the needs and values of a society as a whole. Why might this happen with direct democracy but not with the system used to day – representative democracy?

Manipulation by timing and framing. If voters are to decide on an issue in a referendum, a day (or other period of time) must be set for the vote and the question must be framed, but since the date on which the question is set and different formulations of the same question evoke different responses, whoever sets the date of the vote and frames the question has the possibility of influencing the result of the vote

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