A better way to vote: Why letting the people themselves take the decisions is the logical next step for the West

by Brian Needham, associate editor of The Economist and its foreign editor from 1964 to 1989.

THE difference between today's politics and the politics of the coming century is likely to be a change in what people mean by "democracy": to be precise, a radical change in the process by which the democratic idea is put into practice.

The collapse of communism, everybody agrees, removes the ideological framework that has shaped the politics of the 20th century. One of the two great rival bodies of ideas has been defeated, and the other will be transformed by the consequences of its victory. This does not mean that the world is now wholly non-ideological; there will be other ideas in the name of which politicians will call upon people to follow them into the good fight. But the end of communism, and of the special sort of confrontation it produced, both reinforces the need for a change in the way democracy works and, at the same time, gets rid of a large obstacle in the path to that change.

In crude terms, this overdue change is a shift from "representative democracy" to "direct democracy". The basis of modern democracy is the proposition that every adult person's judgment about the conduct of public affairs is entitled to be given equal weight with every other person's. However different they are from each other - financially, intellectually, in their preference between Schubert and Sting-all men and women have an equal right to say how they wish to be governed. The concept sprang originally from the Protestant Reformation, which declared that everybody was equal in his dealings with God. The political offspring of that religious declaration is now accepted everywhere in the world, at least in principle, except among diehard Leninists and conservative Muslims. (The Muslim exception could be the cause of the world's next great ideological confrontation.)

In most places where it is practised, however, democracy is in a condition of arrested development. Every adult person exercises his or her political right every few years, in elections by which the voters send their representatives to an elected assembly; but in the intervals between elections - which can mean for anything up to about seven years - it is these representatives who take all the decisions. This is not what ancient Athenians meant by democracy.

Some countries do it differently. The most clear-cut example is Switzerland's system of direct democracy. In Switzerland it is possible to insist, by collecting a modest number of signatures, that any law proposed by the government must be submitted to a vote of the whole people. Even better, you can also insist (by getting more signatures) that a brand-new idea for a law must be put to the people even if government and parliament are against the idea.

Australia and some of the western parts of the United States also now use referendums in a fairly regular way. There have even started to be referendums in Europe outside Switzerland--the politicians in Italy, France, Denmark and Ireland have all consulted their people within the past year or so--though only on subjects of the government's choice, and when the government thinks it dare not deny the people the final word. But elsewhere democracy is still stuck at a half-way house, as it were, in which the final word is delegated to the chosen few.

The do-it-yourself way

There are three reasons for thinking that this is going to change. One is the growing inadequacy of representative democracy. It has long been pointed out that to hold an election every few years is not only a highly imprecise way of expressing the voter's wishes (because on these rare election days he has to consider a large number of issues, and his chosen "representative" will in fact not represent him on several of them) but is also notably loose-wristed (because the voter has little control over his representative between elections). Now the end of the battle between communism and pluralism will make representative democracy look more unsatisfactory than ever.

This is because the removal of the ideological component has changed the agenda of politics, in a way that has a worrying consequence. The old central question that is asked at election-time--Which of these two incompatible systems of politics and economics do you prefer, and how does your preference bear upon the decisions that must now be taken?--has disappeared. What is left of the agenda of politics is, by comparison, pretty humdrum. It deals for the most part with relatively minor differences of opinion over economic management, relatively small altercations over the amount and direction of public spending, and so on. The old war of principle, the contest between grand ideas, is over. The new politics is full of dull detail.

It is therefore ideal ground for that freebooter of the modern political world- -the lobbyist. The two most dramatic things that have happened to the developed world since the end of the second world war--its huge increase in wealth, and its explosion of information technology--have had as big an effect on politics as they have had on everything else. The lobbyists, the people who want to influence governments and parliaments on behalf of special interests, now command more money than they ever did before. They also have at their disposal a new armoury of persuasion in the computer, the fax machine, and the rest of it.

In the new agenda of politics, where so much depends upon decisions of detail, the power of the lobbyist can produce striking results. It will at times be, literally, corrupting. But even when it is not as bad as that it will make representative democracy seem increasingly inadequate. The voter, already irritated at having so little control over his representatives between elections, will be even angrier when he discovers how much influence the special-interest propagandists are now able to wield over those representatives. An interloper, it will seem, has inserted himself into the democratic process. The result is not hard to guess. The voter is liable to conclude that direct democracy, in which decisions are taken by the whole people, is better than representative democracy, because the many are harder to diddle--or to bribe--than the few.

This conclusion will be reinforced by the second reason for thinking there is going to be a change in the way democracy works. This is that there is no longer so much difference, in wealth or education, between voters and their elected representatives as there was in the 19th century, when democracy first took widespread root. It used to be argued that the ordinary man's role in politics had to be confined to the periodic election of representatives whose views he broadly agreed with, because the ordinary man was not equipped to take the hard, practical decisions of government (as those representatives, it was blithely assumed, were). A century ago there was some thing in this. There is far less now.

A hundred years ago fewer than 2% of Americans aged between 18 and 24 went to university; now more than a quarter do. The share of the British population that stayed in education beyond the age of 15 rose sevenfold between 1921 and 1991; in the western part of Germany, between 1955 (when the country was still recovering from Hitler's war) and today, the increase has been almost double that. The spread of education has been accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in wealth. In 1893 American GNP per head was $4,000 at today's prices; a century later it is $24,000. The average Briton's income has quintupled in real terms since the beginning of the century. The average West German's has more than quadrupled in the past half- century alone. Bigger incomes bring bigger savings, so more people own houses or shares or whatever. And the rising totals have been accompanied by a more even distribution of prosperity. "We are all middle- class now." Not quite; but we are surely heading that way.

The democracies must therefore apply to themselves the argument they used to direct against the communists. As people get richer and better educated, a democrat would admonishingly tell a communist, they will no longer be willing to let a handful of men in the Politburo take all the decisions that govern a country's life. The same must now be said, with adjustment for scale, about the workings of democracy. As the old differences of wealth, education and social condition blur, it will be increasingly hard to go on persuading people that most of them are fit only to put a tick on a ballot paper every few years, and that the handful of men and women they thereby send to parliament must be left to take all the other decisions.

People are better equipped for direct democracy than they used to be. The altered character of post-cold-war politics increases the need for direct democracy. And then comes the third reason for believing that change is on the way. The waning of ideology weakens the chief source of opposition to the new sort of democracy.

When the party's over

This opposition comes from the political parties that have grown up under representative democracy, since these have most to lose from changing to a different system. Parties are almost indispensable for the holding of elections, and they are the building- blocks of the parliaments chosen by elections. The introduction of direct democracy would instantly diminish the importance both of elections and of parliaments, since most big decisions would be taken by referendum, in a vote of the whole people. Parliaments and parties would not cease to exist; even in the fairly thoroughgoing Swiss form of direct democracy, they survive as partners of the referendum. But they would lose much of their old grandeur. The "representatives of the people" would perform that function only on the people's daily sufferance. This is why most political parties do not like direct democracy.

But they now have less power to resist it, because the end of the cold war has taken away part of the authority they possessed in the old era of ideological confrontation. Then, parties were the spokesmen of one or other of the two grand ideas, or of some variant of one of those ideas. They could also claim to or were accused of being, the instrument of a social class, a subdivision of mankind easily recognisable (it was thought) to those who belonged to it. It was in large part these things that gave parties their sense of identity, and enabled them to demand the loyalty of their supporters.

Now, in post- cold- war politics, much of this is disappearing. There are no longer heroic banners to be borne aloft in the name of ideology. In the wealthier parts of the world, at any rate, class divisions are steadily losing their meaning. In the prosaic new politics, many of the issues that have to be decided are matter- of- fact ones, requiring little excitement. In these conditions fewer people will feel the need to belong to parties, and people will more easily shift from one party, to another. This will make the parties weaker. And that will make it harder for them to oppose radical innovations- - such as the bold step forward to direct democracy.

Politics is not about to become utterly homogeneous. In the luckier parts of the world, there will still be a difference between people who think that the most important thing is to make the economy work as efficiently as possible (who will tend to band together)and people who prefer to concentrate on looking after the unfortunates who get least benefit from this efficiency (who will form another band). In unluckier places, nationalism and religion will continue to provide the driving- force of political parties. The survival of religious politics, for instance in the Islamic world, will remind us that ideology has not been abolished; the fact that one ideological beast has just died, in Moscow, does not mean the breed is globally extinct. But, where nationalism and religion are not the dominant issues, it should be possible to reorganise politics in a less party-controlled, less vote- once- every- x- years, way: in short, in a more directly democratic way. Of course, the move from a looser form of democracy to this more developed variety has to be made with care. It requires the ordinary voter to become more knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects, and to use his judgment responsibly. It will take time for him to learn how to do it well. But a look at Switzerland, the country with the most systematic experience of direct democracy, suggests that the change presents no insuperable difficulty. The best subjects on which to start mass voting are, oddly, those at opposite ends of the spectrum of possibilities. At one end, broad questions about a country's future course of development -- constitutional issues--are manifestly the sort of thing to be decided by universal vote. The governments of France, Denmark and Ireland correctly allowed their people to decide by referendum whether they approved of the Maastricht treaty on European union; the other members of the EC should have done the same, as a majority of voters in most of them plainly wished. Constitutional amendments in the United States could in future be made, or rejected, by referendum.

At the other end of the spectrum, the small, specific decisions of local government--Do you want to add a wing to the local school, or should the money go on road improvement instead?--are equally suitable for direct vote. In both cases, the voter can almost certainly understand the question that is laid before him, and answer it competently.

The difficult area lies in between. Opponents of direct democracy argue that the ordinary voter should not be asked to decide about matters which either (a) have a large emotional content or (b) are too intellectually complex for "ordinary people", especially if the complexity is of the financial sort. For both of those purposes, they say, the people's elected representatives can be trusted to do the job better. In fact, the Swiss experience tends to contradict this cynicism about the potential sophistication of the voters. In the 1960s the Swiss had an attack of the xenophobia that has since affected s o many other Europeans. Strong passions were aroused. There were too many foreign workers in the country; jobs were being taken away from honest Swiss. And yet, after a long battle involving several referendums, the result was surprisingly restrained. A limit was set on the total number of foreigners who could come to work in Switzerland, but the limit was only a little below the number actually in the country at the time. Even more strikingly, the measure was framed so as to permit a subsequent rise in the total. Today, a quarter of a century later, almost 27% of the country's workforce, and more than a sixth of the total population, is non-Swiss.

More hesitantly, Switzerland has also pushed direct democracy into the field of taxation and public spending. The Swiss system does not in theory provide for referendums on financial matters. But it has been possible to get around this difficulty by the device known as the "initiative". In Switzerland, if you can get 100,000 signatures on a petition, you can insist that any proposal you feel strongly about must be put to the people's vote.

It was by this means that, in June this year, a group of Swiss took to the country their proposal that the country's armed forces should be denied authority to buy any new military aircraft for the rest of the century. The proposal had the double attraction of saving a large amount of public money and of appealing to post- cold- war anti- militarism; nevertheless, it was defeated. It was also this year that the Swiss agreed, by referendum, to an increase in Switzerland's petrol tax. These two recent examples make the point. Direct democracy can deal with complex matters responsibly, even when they affect the voter's pocket.

Deciding things by vote of the whole people is not, to be sure, a flawless process. The voter in a referendum will find some of the questions put to him dismayingly abstruse (but then so do many members of parliament). He will be rather bored by a lot of the issues of post- ideological politics (but then he can leave them for parliament to deal with, if he is not interested enough to call for a referendum). He will be subjected, via television, to a propaganda barrage from the rich, high- tech special- interest lobbies (but he is in one way less vulnerable to the lobbyists' pressure than members of parliament are, because lobbyists cannot bribe the whole adult population).

On the other hand, direct democracy has two great advantages. It leaves no ambiguity about the answer to the question: What did the people want? The decisions of parliament are ambiguous because nobody can be sure, on any given issue, whether a parliamentary majority really does represent the wishes of a majority of the people. When the whole people does the deciding, the answer is there for all to see. Second, direct democracy sharpens the ordinary man's sense of political responsibility. When he has to make up his own mind on a wide variety of specific issues- - the Swiss tackled 66 federal questions by general vote in the 1980s, hundreds of cantonal ones and an unknown number (nobody added them up) of local- community matters- - he learns to take politics seriously. Since the voter is the foundation- stone of any sort of democracy, representative or direct, anything that raises his level of political efficiency is profoundly to be desired.

This move forward by democracy will not happen at the same speed all over the world. It is certainly not yet feasible in the new democracies of Africa and southern Asia. The new system requires the voters not only to be fairly well- educated and reasonably well- informed, but also to have a big enough share of material prosperity to understand why they are responsible for their country's future. Those conditions do not yet apply in much of Africa and Asia. Nor, quite possibly, will it happen very quickly in the Confucian region of eastern Asia. There the local 20th-century experiments with democracy still operate in a culture that pays great respect to the idea of authority, and respect for authority does not sit easily with the general sense of individual self-sufficiency required by direct democracy.

But in the heartland of democracy--meaning in North America and in Europe at least as far east as Budapest, Warsaw and Tallinn--the move should now be possible. Here, at any rate, the least bad form of government yet invented by man can advance from its present half-way house to something more like full application of the democratic principle.

Return to Voting by Phone home page