…is a big dose of democracy. Switzerland shows us how. With a little help from California
Douglas Smith | November 2004 issue
Politicians in many places tell us that they are concerned by declining voter turnout in elections. They bemoan the failure of contemporary politics to engage the public. They spend large amounts of time and money to persuade us of the importance of voting. But they fail to face to the obvious truth; many people don’t vote because it’s an outdated, ineffective and uninspiring way of deciding how our public affairs are run.
It’s long been thought a good idea to leave the complicated matter of running a government to an elite group of wise men. After all, if they make a mess of things they can be ejected from office in a few years. That was a questionable proposition, even in the early 20th Century when most voters throughout Europe and North America were poorly educated. Yet this is still how we govern ourselves. Every few years we are expected to hand power over to a cabal of professional politicians. Then if we don’t like them, we can usher in another bunch at the next election.
But thanks to the rapid development of communications technology we now have a highly informed citizenry. Half the UK population, for instance, now goes on to higher education. And everyone is used to making decisions of importance in our own lives on a day-by-day basis. Why on earth do we persist with a political system that prevents us from running society ourselves?
Some commentators respond that people don’t really care about politics anymore. So why did a million people march in London, Madrid, Barcelona and Rome against the war in Iraq, and many thousands more in other cities across the planet. Why did half-a-million march against President Bush in New York at the Republican convention and another half-million in London over the issue of hunting? People sign petitions on issues ranging from local planning issues to international economics all the time. This hardly looks like political apathy.
People today are not disinterested in the decisions that shape everyone’s future, they are disempowered. And when people feel disempowered they can go in one of two directions: they can become energised, sometimes even resorting to terrorism; or they can become cynical. Currently, the latter is what prevails in the UK, U.S., Canada and much of Europe today. But for how much? A lot of what repels people is not politics, but politicians. Those in power have a stake in keeping citizens apathetic. That’s why most politicians today—right, left and center—oppose ideas about opening up the political process to greater participation from the people.
It is commonly assumed that our form of government, representative democracy is what political scientists call it, is the only viable method of managing the complex affairs of a modern nation. But you have to look no further than Switzerland to see this is not true. Switzerland, an economically advanced country that has deftly avoided the carnage of war for many centuries, offers an inspiring model of how we might govern ourselves. Its political structure is based upon the principle of decentralization, with the country divided into 26 cantons—historic regions with distinct identities and a high degree of autonomy from the federal government.
The massive centralization of power of the English or French national governments is inconceivable to the Swiss. Even federal systems like the United States and Canada operate with a one-size-fits-all mentality, which limits the initiative states and provinces can take in many areas. Switzerland’s cantons, on the other hand, have wide freedom to innovate and to learn from each others’ successes and mistakes.
The other great strength of Swiss democracy is that citizens have the right to call a referendum on any subject they wish, providing they can gather enough signatures. For example, any new law brought before the Federal Assembly (the Swiss parliament) can be challenged by the voters before it is enacted. If enough people don’t like a measure, they can call a referendum and throw the law out.
But the democratic opportunities of Swiss citizens don’t end there. If 100,000 signatures are collected within an 18-month period then a legislative proposal can be put on the ballot and voted on by the general public. If it passes, it becomes law. Thus, in 1990 the Swiss voted on the idea, proposed by grassroots environmental activists, of a 10-year moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants. Despite the pro-nuclear stance of business and the political establishment, the public voted by a 55 per cent majority in favour of the measure. This stunning example of people power could not have happened in most other nations because the government wouldn’t dream of allowing an ‘ignorant’ public to interfere with its plans.
Switzerland’s population is approximately 7,300,000, so it takes less than 1.5 percent of the population to initiate a referendum. An opportunity like this to directly enact legislation would transform the nature of any nation. Not only would we be able to stop many bad things from happening; we’d also be able to kick-start positive changes. Indeed, the whole process of initiating a referendum would spark vigorous discussion of public issues.
A number of U.S. states, mostly in the West and Midwest, permit ‘ballot propositions’, similar to Swiss referendums. Those who believe that big business interests and populist reactionaries dominate such votes should look at the record. There are famous examples like Proposition 13, in which California voters enacted a limit on property taxes which weakened social services and education quality in the state, but those same voters later legalized marijuana for medical uses. There is no ideological colour to successful initiatives: everything depends on local circumstances and effective campaigning.
The fear of the unruly mob is the most effective weapon in the arsenal of the political elite. ‘My God,’ they incant. ‘Imagine what the masses would vote for if we gave them the chance.’ Dividing the general public into mutually suspicious blocs is such an old political trick that it’s amazing that anyone still falls for it. But they do. Keeping people afraid of what their enemies might accomplish by means of direct democracy remains an effective tool for keeping things just as they are.
Such fearmongering becomes even more absurd when we take the concept down to the local level, where grand ideological philosophies hold less sway. Municipal governments currently make all sorts of decisions, many of them contrary to the wishes of the people they represent. If an out-of-town corporation is granted permission to build a huge development because key politicians have had their egos (or wallet) plumped up, then there is little that the local citizens in most places can do about it. Concerns about pollution, traffic, sprawl, and damage to hometown businesses fall on deaf ears. But why not allow those who live, work and shop in the areas affected by such schemes to have the final say? Corporate bosses wouldn’t like the idea, but the rest of us would.
There’s a further measure that could truly put more democratic power back into the hands of citizens. It’s called a recall vote, and allows voters to petition for the removal of a discredited politician. If they get the required number of signatures (900,000 out of 15 million registered voters in California) then a vote is held. Famously, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California last year after voters recalled the incumbent, Gray Davis, who was widely blamed for incompetent handling of the state’s energy crisis. Schwarzenegger is, of course, a Republican, many progressives also vied to become Davis’s replacement. What a fabulous antidote to government arrogance if a direct dose of democracy could administered this way in other places.
The idea of direct democracy is reasonable and practical. It offers a way to dramatically increase participation in politics. Furthermore, it provides a safety valve – not just for those who get their way, but also for those on the losing side of a referendum. To be told by the majority of your fellow citizens that they honestly disagree with you is a lot less galling than to be ignored, ridiculed and marginalized by politicians with.
There’s a very simple way to decide whether direct democracy is a good idea. Go outside. Walk around. Look at people going about their business. Do they look evil to you? Do they elicit fear and loathing in you? Of course not. They are ordinary and decent, just like you. Then go back home and switch on your TV. Watch the professional politicians performing on the news. Which bunch do you trust more?
Adapted from The Ecologist (July/August 2004), a feisty, visionary, globally-focused environmental magazine from London. More information: www.theecologist.org.