Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.
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.
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.
Cons of Direct Democracy
The major con of direct democracy is that it is very time consuming for citizens and requires a lot of participation. Imagine having to vote on every single bill and law. How can anybody possibly be so informed on every single issue while still maintaining their job? That is why others have argued that representative government, in which professional lawmakers make the law, is a better form of government.
A second con to direct democracy is that it can make people vulnerable to demagogues. Demagogues are charismatic speakers who can sway people towards one side or another. By making everything a popular vote, direct democracy may lead to some citizens making brash and uninformed voting decisions. The fear of demagogues was one reason that the Framers of the Constitution did not create a direct democracy.
In a direct democracy, every single law, bill, or issue of justice is voted on by all the people. Ancient Athens was a true direct democracy, where every citizen with voting rights were required to vote on all issues. Today, Switzerland has some elements of direct democracy, and while the United States is primarily a representative democracy, processes - like referendums and initiatives - on the local level offer some direct democracy.
Pros of direct democracy include the fact that it makes government more responsive to the people's wishes and creates more political participation. Cons include the fact that it's time consuming and difficult for citizens to be fully informed about every issue, and it can make people vulnerable to demagogues.
Once you've finished with this lesson, you will have the ability to:
- Define direct democracy
- Describe how direct democracy occurred in Ancient Athens and how Switzerland still has elements of direct democracy
- Explain how referendums and initiatives in the United States relate to direct democracy
- Summarize the pros and cons of direct democracy
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack