Answer of the Week

Why not direct democracy? Fear of the tyranny of the majority and a need for practicality drives most people away from pure direct democracy and towards another solution, representative democracy.

In a direct democracy, everyone is entitled to propose policy options and vote on those proposals.  The proposals with the most votes become law.

The reference to direct democracy is often used by those who fear the unchecked tyranny of any majority of people.  Unconstrained majority rule could indeed create problems for those in any minority – and the founders knew it.  Alexander Hamilton said

It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

Direct democracy is a straw-man, easily knocked down, because it is difficult to coordinate across large numbers of citizens, even with modern technology. On top of that, most of us are too busy working and raising families to follow all the issues closely enough to make informed votes on policy options.

There are no countries governed by direct democracies. Outside the U.S., the closest example of direct democracy is Switzerland, which has some limited aspects of direct democracy.  The closest examples to direct democracy in the U.S. were the town hall meetings held in some parts of Colonial New England.  Today, ballot initiatives, referendums, and recall votes are the closest U.S. citizens can get to anything resembling direct democracy. (See the Ballotpedia pages on the history of initiatives and referendums and limited direct democracy in the U.S.) Citizens may propose bills through initiatives, change or repeal laws made by legislatures by referendum, and remove elected officials with recall petitions validated and submitted for a vote to the people at large.

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