Direct Democracy

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What are some of these lessons against exclusive direct democracy?

Mark Whitaker:

"As realistically the most documented example, drawing from the history of Athens (ca. 500 BCE to around 322 BCE) direct democracy was analyzed either in its own era (Plato) or after it collapsed (Aristotle) as descending into its own forms of tyranny when corrupted. Tyranny hardly only comes from more royalist or oligarchic frameworks, they argued. It could come from a corrected constitutionalism and direct democracy as well. Following Aristotle's analysis in his Politics, a corrupted constitutional government becomes a form of tyranny which he called 'democracy.' Even most in the Enlightenment, when they discussed 'democracy,' were using this negative use of the term [lknk to the sweden and elgnad book], contrary to some that later attempted to pretend that the Enlightenment was some harbinger or precursor of more widespread mass representative thought about democracy.

Reviewing Athens' direct democracy failures:

It was found difficult to eradicate systemic financial fraud and bribery.

It was difficult to organize, under a required rapid response.

It was difficult to expand as scale expands and thus either non-durable or prone to novel stratification and inequalities produced by its own once more equitable political and economic sponsorship process.

It was non-durable as well from a lack of separation of powers that would have slowed policy action for review, thus tending to be:

- reckless (unpredictable or easily emotionally manipulated in policy without clearing thinking through consequences);

- arbitrary (brutal against some, in some cases, while strangely lax against others, in the same kind of cases);

- increasingly discriminatory, repressive and caste conscious (instead of presumptions that direct democracy has a history of supporting the expansion of its franchise or supporting equality, there was a huge expansion of war booty based slavery that came in only under Athenian constitutional provisions for direct democracy, combined with its increasingly self-voted reduction of citizenship scale in the direct democracy by its own members that were interested in being a ruling class interested in preserving an enclave of previously smaller power, instead of interested in voting to widen the franchise to include all in debates influenced by its policies.)

- and thus even imperial (as the increasingly warlike and predatory practices developed under pressure by Athenian direct democracy, foreshadowing Athens more formal foreign tyrannic 'outside rule' by others that conquered them which was only a mirror image of the conquering and enslaving practices that Athenian democratic imperialism had expressed on others a mere generation before; Athens more imperial period, when dominated by the royalist Macedonians was after 322 BCE, yet this experience by the Athenians was somewhat similar to, instead of so different from, the kinds of wars that their earlier direct democracy had dished out to others. Points like the above are why direct democracy with typically voting rules of 'all or nothing' majoritarianism is described as an 'illiberal democracy,' to contrast it with those moderns that claim that more representative based elections, checks and balances, civil rights of individuals, and civil protections of minorities from majorities are more of a form of 'liberal democracy.'" (


Of Referendum Democracy

Stephen Shalom:

"Direct democracy is an alternative to representative democracy. Under direct democracy people make decisions themselves rather than choosing others to do it for them. There are several variants of direct democracy. One of these is referendum democracy, where every issue is put to the population as a whole. In the past such an approach was simply impossible: there was no mechanism for allowing large numbers of people to cast ballots on a nearly daily basis. But modern technology makes this possible on a vast scale. People could use the internet first to access as much background information as they wanted and then to vote on their preferred options.

But even if technically possible, would we really want to spend all this time exhaustively studying the many hundreds of issues Italic textthat national legislatures currently take up each year. Those legislators are doing this more or less full-time. Do we all want to invest that same amount of time (while doing some other job as well)? Legislators typically have a staff to make the work manageable. Would each citizen have a staff person? Clearly some means is needed to separate the important issues out from all the rather routine issues that legislators currently deal with.

Beyond this time problem, referendum democracy suffers from another defect: when people make decisions that do not emerge from participation in some sort of deliberative process, their off-the-cuff opinions are more likely to be intolerant and uninformed. Whereas deliberation encourages people to seek common ground and find ways to take seriously the opinions of others, voting in a referendum encourages people to express their pre-existing views on polarized positions. " (

Of Autonomous Communities

"A second type of direct democracy is where all decisions are made directly by the people living in fully autonomous small communities. Here we can combine the benefits of participation and the benefits of deliberation. But there are nevertheless serious shortcomings with this approach.

First, not all problems are susceptible to small-scale solutions. Pandemics call for a global solution. Environmental problems need a large scale response. Small communities cannot afford expensive technologies, like medical equipment. It is true, of course, that some large-scale technologies create great harm -- like nuclear power plants -- and that much technology is horrendously misused in current society to serve the interests of elites; but this is no reason for us to reject technology out of hand. Technology can reduce human drudgery and provide us the opportunity of undertaking more creative work and leading fuller lives.

Advocates of autonomous communities often reply that their preference for small scale does not prevent communities from cooperating, whether to address environmental problems or to share an MRI machine. But sharing and cooperating need some decision-making procedure involving multiple communities. Otherwise there will be no way to prevent an autonomous community from polluting its neighbors or hoarding medical equipment. And if we have procedures that can prevent the pollution or the hoarding, then the polluting or hoarding communities are no longer fully autonomous.

A second problem with small autonomous communities involves the question of size. Either they are too small, and thus can't function effectively or provide adequate diversity. Or they will be too large to permit face-to-face direct democracy. A meeting of thousands or even hundreds of people is not typically a very participatory experience." (

Nested Councils

A third type of direct democracy rejects both the self-sufficiency and the referendum models and instead has small councils, linked to one another.

Everyone gets to participate in a primary council that is small enough for face-to-face decision making and for real deliberation. Many decisions will be made in these councils because the decision affects only or overwhelmingly the members of that council. But because there are many decisions that affect more than the people in a single council, the councils affected will have to coordinate their decision-making. This means that councils will have to send delegates to a higher level council. And, if the decision affects more than one of these higher level councils, they would in turn send delegates to a third-level council. And so on.

How would these higher level councils operate? We don't want to have delegates mandated by their sending councils, for then the higher level councils will not be deliberative bodies. As noted previously, there would be no point to anyone speaking or trying to persuade others, or passionately explaining one's special concerns, because all the delegates would have zero leeway -- they would have to vote the way their sending council told them to. This means that no one from council A gets to hear the perspective of people from council B, and there is no possibility of coming to a better position than either A or B alone proposed. On the other hand, if the delegates are not mandated and just do what they want, then we have the problem of delegates becoming like the unrepresentative representatives that characterize contemporary representative democracy.

What makes more sense is to send a delegate who, because she has been part of a council and participated in a deliberative process with its members, understands their sentiments and concerns, and is authorized to deliberate on their behalf with other delegates. But what will prevent this unmandated delegate from becoming an unrepresentative representative? First, the connection between delegates and their sending councils is an organic one, not at all like the connection between constituents and representatives in typical representative democracies. The delegates are part of -- and constantly returning to -- their sending council. Second, delegates will be rotated; no one will be permitted to serve too long as a council's delegate. Third, delegates will be subject to immediate recall. If ever a council believes that its delegate no longer adequately reflects its concerns and sentiments (and all higher-level council meetings are videotaped and easily monitored), then it may immediately replace the delegate with someone else.

Most importantly, however, what prevents the unmandated delegates from usurping power is that the higher-level councils will only vote on matters that are relatively non-controversial. Whenever a vote is close (or when enough citizens or lower councils insist), the issue is returned to the lower councils for a decision.

It might be asked, why not send all issues back to the primary-level councils for a vote? But this is where our concern to avoid overdoing participation with excessive time demands comes in. By sending back contentious issues or those so requested by the citizens or the lower-level councils, we have a check on abuse of power by the delegates to the higher-level councils. But to send everything back would simply be a waste of time.

The notion of nested councils has elicited some confusion, with some seeing the layered councils, each sending delegates to the next higher level council, as simply a system of multiple indirect elections. Indirect elections, however, have serious deficiencies from a democratic point of view and therefore it is essential to understand the problems with indirect elections, as well as the problems of direct elections, and how parpolity seeks to avoid both sets of problems." (


Projects [1] in favour of Direct Democracy:

More Information

Videos on Participatory Democracy on Youtube

A lot of good videos about participatory democracy including participatory budgeting from