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What is Direct Democracy? - Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:53 Athens, Switzerland & US
  • 3:01 Pros
  • 3:31 Cons
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Rainer has taught college Sociology and Political Science courses and has a master's degree in political sociology.

Direct democracy is a form of government in which all laws are created by a general vote of society. We'll consider some examples of direct democracy and look at some pros and cons of this type of democracy.

Direct Democracy: Definition

What if you didn't get to vote for a legislator to make your region's laws? Instead, you were the legislator! What if everyone got to vote on the speed limit on highways? What if everyone got to vote on the innocence or guilt of a defendant? What if every single law that came up had to be voted on by everyone in the general public?

If these scenarios were to come true, you would be living in a direct democracy. In a true direct democracy, every single law, bill, or issue of justice is voted on by all the people. A direct democracy is usually contrasted with a representative democracy. In a representative democracy, the general public votes for representatives, who then make laws on its behalf.

Ancient Athens, Switzerland, and the United States

Perhaps the most prominent example of direct democracy was ancient Athens. Although the Athenians excluded women, slaves, and foreigners from voting, the Athenian democratic system required all citizens to take a vote on all major issues. Athenian democracy consisted of three parts: the general assembly, which was all citizens; the boulê, which was 500 citizens in charge of running the city; and the law courts, which tried all crimes. Under the Athenian system, citizens were actively and constantly involved in the running of all political life. The verdict of every single court case was even decided by a vote of the assembly!

What if you didn't like the bill that Congress passed? Would you like to put it to a national vote? If you said yes, then you might like living in Switzerland. Although Switzerland is not a true direct democracy, any law that is passed by the national legislative branch can be vetoed by the general public if put to a public vote. Additionally, citizens can directly petition to change the Constitution through a direct vote on an amendment. In some districts of Switzerland, they still have Landsgemeinde, or assemblies, where people assemble in open air on a certain day to decide and vote on the laws of their society. This makes Switzerland the most prominent modern democracy to use elements of direct democracy.

A Landsgemeinde in Switzerland. The citizens of the district assemble on a day to vote for or against a law.
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In the United States, there is no true direct democracy. But there are certainly elements of this at the state and local levels. This occurs through the process of referendums and initiatives. In the case of a referendum, citizens of a state or local government can repeal a local law if they achieve a majority vote. In the case of an initiative, citizens of a state or local government can create a law if they achieve a majority vote. In both cases, the idea here is that citizens are deciding directly what is or is not the law.

Pros of Direct Democracy

Direct democracy has two main pros. First, it makes the government responsive to the general wishes of the public. When people want to see change in their government, they can gain results quickly by voting.

Furthermore, direct democracy tends to create more political participation. Voters see that their vote truly does count because what they are voting on will have an immediate effect on the laws of society. Therefore, voters may participate more in government.

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