Sunday, August 9, 2020 -
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Direct democracy

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about democracy. I don’t think I can condense my thoughts into one Snapshot, so this will be a short series. But I can give you my conclusion now: Democracy is as varied as it is complicated; there is no one perfect form.

What got me started was a film, “The Divine Order,” about how Swiss women only got the vote in 1971. It’s easy to assume that Switzerland lagged in this area because of its conservatism, which is the film’s argument.

But it’s more nuanced: As the longest extant democracy, Swiss men had already had the vote — to varying degrees — for centuries; the early 19th-century upheavals that precipitated female suffrage elsewhere didn’t occur in Switzerland, a stable democracy.

Also, in Switzerland, female suffrage could not be enacted by the government; it had to be voted on by its (male) citizens. It’s a compelling example of a shortcoming of direct democracy, which is often idealized.

I used to be a big proponent of referenda, but having been exposed to a robust direct democracy — the Swiss have four voting Sundays a year! — has made me skeptical. How many of us are truly informed? How many of us are manipulated by propaganda? How many of us simply don’t vote? Does every issue need a vote? The most recent ballot in Switzerland included a question on whether farmers should be permitted to continue dehorning their cows (not kidding).

I’m still impressed by how citizen-driven Switzerland’s constitution, laws and policies are, but was it good that female suffrage had to wait until the majority of men were convinced? Is it good that the Swiss constitution includes a ban on minarets?

Next week: the pitfalls of parliamentary democracy.

Shana Goldberg may be reached at

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Shana Goldberg

IJN Assistant Publisher |

One thought on “Direct democracy

  1. Olaf Littleboat

    You might also like to check out this movie exploring direct democracy’s history and potential in the US:
    Certainly a constitutional framework and a democratic public sphere is required, but our purely representative federal government has failed to provide for the latter.


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