Direct Democracy in Switzerland

Excerpts from Direct Democracy in Switzerland

By Gregory A. Fossedal, Chairman, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution

Forward by Alfred R. Berkeley III, vice-chair, NASDAQ

"More than half its [the Swiss Constitution’s] provisions, as of the late 20th century, were derived from popular ballot initiatives or referenda voted on directly by the people." Pg X


“Swiss consume more newspapers per capita than the people of any other country – twice the European average.” Pg. 3

“It is perhaps the richest country in the world in terms of per capita income, which is about $40,000 per year. [Yet] The Swiss economy is one of those – Taiwan, Japan – which seem blessed by a poverty of physical resources.” Pg. 5

“It contains communities in which popular government dates farther back than anywhere else in the world.” – “Modern Democracies” by James Bryce


The 8/1/1291 Bundesbrief, the first Swiss pact for “everlasting cooperation” of 3 cantons, is unsigned. “In some ways, this anonymous character is appropriately Swiss, the product of a politics of consensus by a group of equal citizens.” Pg. 16


“The Swiss constitution of 1848 was largely based on the U.S. constitution of 1789.” Pg. 29

“Metternich seethed at the Swiss democracy. He loathed its toleration of intellectuals and dissidents – loathed it, and feared it.” Pg 37

“There were probably more Swiss killed in the American Civil War than in their own.” Pg 38


“Legislation must pass both houses of parliament to become law, but it needs no further signature from the executive. This check, the “veto,” was thought to be unnecessary: it is carried out by the people thought initiative and referendum.” Pg. 48

Executives Branch

“…the Swiss Press… is more vigorous than the press in America or Britain with respect to discussing policy issues, but far less interested in reporting on political conflict and personal scandal…” Pg 53

“At the height of the Depression, while Franklin Roosevelt was speaking of a nation “one third” in economic distress, the Swiss suffered a maximum unemployment rate of 4.2 percent.” Pg 58

“The first thought of a Swiss,” as President Furgler commented, “is not, ‘let us go to the federal government for this,’ but rather, ‘let’s bring it up at the town council’ And even when you are at the national level it is not, ‘what can the president do about it?’ but rather, ‘what do we need to do about it?'”Pg. 59

“Military efficiency too requires someone to make the decisions. The Swiss, always suspicious of concentrations of power, prefer not to have such a commanding figure during peacetime. Hence there is no general-in-chief, indeed normally no Swiss general, except in time of war…” Pg 61

“Switzerland has no great bureaucracy to buck and kick against the policies desired by the government.” Pg 63

“The combination [direct and representative government] has the additional benefit of rendering the Swiss relatively difficult to sway with sudden arguments, demagogic appeals, and slanted versions of the facts…’Switzerland,’ as Lenin grumbled after living in the country for many years, ‘is the worst ground for the revolution.” Pg 64

“The Swiss probably have sacked more castles in their country, and tolerated fewer lords, than any other country of Europe. Where men and women are citizens there cannot be lords and tyrants.” Pg 66


“This air of informality in the halls of government is all the more striking in Switzerland because of the greater formality of the Swiss in general compared to Americans…” Pg 69

“Some of the persons nominated to the court, in fact, are not even attorneys but members of parliament, businessmen, and other professionals.” Pg. 70

“Switzerland has a number of provisions that discourage professionals from thinking of legal practice as a way to amass great wealth or fame. There is a loser-pays provision for lawsuits…” Pg 73

“To understand why the federal courts have almost no authority to void federal law and only limited authority to void cantonal statutes, it is helpful to remember who may: the people…In the U.S., there is much debate among legal scholars about what the “original intent of the framers” was… In Switzerland, to a much greater extent, the “framers” are still alive and they are not a particular group of men, but all the citizens. There is no need to perform highly speculative debates about what they meant; and if an error is made, it is easily corrected by those same authors themselves.” Pg. 74


“Although most members have some competence in two ro more of the country’s four official languages, some do not, and by law, individuals at such proceedings have a right to speak in any of the [government’s] three official tongues.” Pg 76

“It reflects, more than any other parliament, the people who elect is, and it enacts – especially given the many popular checks on it – laws that are closer to the heart and spirit of its people than in any other nation… the Swiss feel perhaps less alienated from their politicians than the voters of any other country… There are no federal term limits…and members enjoy a very high rate of reelection. Yet they generally step down after a period of ten or so years…In many Western countries, the pattern is the opposite: Many politicians loudly proclaim the virtues of limited terms, yet decline to step down themselves after years in office.” Pg 76

“Members of parliament come and go, leaving an outsider to wonder where the entrance is for “visitors” or the “general public…One passes through a long, old-fashioned-type communal press room with big wooden tables and ample seating, but no special desks belonging to individual reporters…The typical parliamentarian has only a shared desk in this outer commons area, or a best, a cubbyhole at his party’s office nearby. There are no paid staff, no special barbershops for members. Members generally eat in a cafeteria along with other members, visitors, and employees from the library and other government offices housed at the Bundeshaus.” Pg 79

“Senator Pat Moynihan once described the error of many Americans in thinking its legislators worked by the “consent of the governed.” In fact, as Moynihan aptly noted, they operate as they wish unless the people object. The same theme is woven thought the memoirs of the late Tip O’Neill.” Pg 80

“In the U.S., even a junior member of Congress typically enjoys staff, office, and other privileges in the amount of $800,000 and up.” Pg 82

“The citizen system has also probably played a role in the facility with which women have been able to move so quickly into the political structure in Switzerland. (Their presence is all the more remarkable if we recall that women did not even win the vote until a 1971 referendum.) [The Swiss version of the Equal Rights Amendment passed 60-40% in 1981; it failed in the US.]…The Swiss parliament consists of citizens who live not with separate members’ pension and health plans, special entrances and parking places and other perks, but will in fact be back at their workplace living under the laws they have created within a few weeks.” Pg 83

“There is almost no lobbying,” Bryce wrote, and this remains largely true today. Pg 84


“In the plebiscites in Revolutionary France, votes often resembled those 98-1 or better affairs…Taken in the spur of the moment, with little real debate or presentation of alternatives, these plebiscites revealed scarcely any of the deliberate sense of the people. They had all the seriousness and thoughtfulness of an opinion poll taken over the telephone, and gave to ‘plebiscitory democracy” the bad name it still has for many today.” Pg. 87

“Because of this advantage in holding discussions seriatim, separated by an interval of weeks or months, the referendum is more amenable to a deliberative process. Popular assemblies, by contrast, must be carefully managed to avoid becoming a chaotic shouting match.” Pg. 88

“Although there had been little experience with the device [referendum] per se on a cantonal level, there was a consensus among the men writing the constitution in 1847 and 1848 that the referendum would prove a highly useful device for legitimizing their new structure of government – and therefore, warranted to be retained as a permanent part of the design. Evidently, the people had little objection to being consulted about he constitution initially, or about its provision by which they would be consulted periodically.”

“Finally in 1891, the right of initiative for changes to the federal constitution was approved by 60 % of the voters and 18 of the 22 (full) cantons. As a check against caprice, the constitutional referendum has always required approval by both the majority of the voters and a majority of the cantons.” Pg 90

“Looking at this 150-year history, the most important characteristic is probably something one does not see. There does not appear to have been a single crise de regime caused by the initiative or referendum policy.” Pg 91

“Table 9.1 lists some of the more important uses of the referendum:”

[includes: Add initiative to referendum power, 1891; Proportional voting for parliament, 1918; Add Romansch to German, French and Italian as a national language, 1938; Voting rights for women, 1971; Equal rights for women, 1981; Consumer protection against corporate cartels, 1982; New constitution, 1999; repeated rejection of immigration restrictions, 1977, 2000; Join UN, 2002.]

“The referendum power is even, in a sense, self-denying. Far from grasping for power the people have periodically denied it to themselves – if, again, the matter is one they deem best handled by their politicians.” Pg 100

“All the articles about immigration policy in the Swiss press, while they have not enabled anti-immigration measures to pass, have provided information that the proponents are eager to see disseminated. The education process works in both directions, too. Often the movements that propound radical ideas are able to refine or moderate their positions and become more effective. Politicians who misread the popular mood, meanwhile, can go back to their office and rethink their approach.” Pg 101

“Direct democracy is the greatest single cause of these economic policies that have helped Switzerland grow so rapidly over the last century.” Pg 104

“Over the last 150 years, the Swiss have been less troubled by the wild swings of inflation and deflation seen in the world at large than almost any other country – even including he U.S.” Pg 105

“Thus the process of establishing a national bank became a forty-year dialogue, and the value-added tax, one of almost 25 years.” Pg 105

“A system of referendum does not yield the same results one would have if one polled the people about the issues on the referenda – because when someone knows he is going to be asked to render an opinion, and that opinion will become law, he treats the matter more seriously… Members of a jury treat a case differently than members of the general public; and by the same token, voters and lawmakers regard it otherwise than if they were mere bystanders.” Pg 106

“Like the U.S., Switzerland plays home to a large number of foreign-born workers and their families – close to 20% of the population for the Swiss… Public opinion polls, thought taken much less seriously in Switzerland, indicate that by margins of about 3 to 1 the Swiss feel there are too many foreigners, they cannot be assimilated, and something should be done about it.

“Yet when confronted with the chance to reduce immigration through policy, Swiss voters have consistently rejected the proposals – and by large margins. Anti-immigration measures failed in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.”

“In the U.S., since there is no national initiative or referendum and since there are two dominant parties, it is much easier to bottle up issues or proposals for years.”

“Because of many stages and iterations in Switzerland, the referendum process is not one shot – it’s more deliberative and seriatim.”

“[Such problems plus] the sheer expense of collecting signatures… and the large amounts of money spent on demagogic appeals – which the voters, being less trained as legislators than the Swiss, are more susceptible to – has rendered the process more like what the American founders feared for direct democracy, than it is like the Swiss alternative.” Pg 108

“The Swiss are direct democracy professionals, working out regularly. The typical Swiss citizen votes on a constitutional amendment about once a year, and votes several times on cantonal laws, initiatives, and amendments… Imagine if all the effort and money spent in Washington went towards educating people – and listening to them.” Pg 109

“Most groups have suffered enough defeats, but also won enough victories so that the “losers” don’t comprise a consistent or solid ideological bloc. Business interests, for example, have lost many votes on environmental policy, but have won others on taxes. The left has been unable to push certain pending schemes, but has enjoyed victories on pension and health care policies.” Pg 110

“The difference between it [the Swiss system] and purely representative democracy is illustrated if we imagine a system in which you could pick only which grocery store someone else would shop at for you – or, still further, if you could select between 3 or 4 [2, usually!] carts that had been previously filled by people at the store, but could not stock the carts yourself.” Pg 113

“Having asked dozens of Swiss what the worst result initiative or referendum has produced, most of them answered ‘none.'” Pg 115

“In most countries, as the former economic an political guru to Jack Kemp, Jude Wanniski, has observed, the voters as a whole are smarter than their leaders. The difference may be that, in Switzerland, most leaders believe the people are smarter.” Pg 115

“As a result, there is perhaps less of a gap between elite and popular opinion in Switzerland than in any other country. There is, when such gaps occur, less arrogance felt by the elites and less frustration by the people than perhaps mankind has ever seen over an extended time under any other political system. The chief institutional sources of the distinctive level of mutual respect, in my observation, is the federal and cantonal initiative and referendum process, and community democracy.” Pg 116


“It is simple. Citizenship is conferred by citizens.” [Citizenship is granted to immigrants by vote of the local town councils.] Pg 119

“The discussions, the meetings – they all end, politically and therefore psychologically, at the people. Consensus building among elites, in this sense, is merely a faster way of bowing to the inevitable.” Pg 126


“People are perhaps more satisfied with the schools than in any country in the world – Sweden, Australia, and Germany, in my experience would offer significant comparison; the U.S., Canada, and Britain would not.”Pg 136

“When men cannot argue about principles, they will argue about interests, and then, personal morals.”-Alexis de Tocqueville Pg 142

“Over time, of course, the most important impact of this process [ballot initiatives regarding education] may, ironically, be pedagogic. By constantly empowering even the smallest voices to set off a legislative debate and making frequent to the jury of the people, the Swiss education system, in combination with the political, leads a constant dialogue. And, unlike an abstract, academic discussion where nothing changes as a result, this is, if one may co-opt a 1970s phrase, a “meaningful dialogue.” Pg. 142

“In Switzerland, the majority, as scholar Carol Schmidt puts it, often “does not behave like a majority.” That is to say, there are majorities in Switzerland – Protestants, German-speakers, and others – that abstain from establishing certain practices they might otherwise prefer, out of a deliberate respect for the minority.” Pg 143


“Swiss income tax rates are among the lowest in the industrial world.” Pg 145

“Wage income, capital gains and corporate income are all taxed – none at more than 40%, few at less than 10%. This attribute has been called “longitudinal fairness” Pg 148

“The voters have the same power, indeed greater power, to limit taxes at the cantonal and local levels – yet they have proven more willing to approve new and higher taxes at those levels than the voters in perhaps any other country in the world.” Pg 150

“As a review of the initiative and referendum process suggest, it is more difficult to raise taxes in Switzerland than in perhaps any other country. Yet, taxes are raised and altered from time to time. And when they are, there is less resentment than elsewhere, because the burdens are self-imposed.” Pg 151

“Income taxes are paid to the community, which reports and divides income with the canton; the canton in turn reports and directs income to the federal government.” Pg 153


“Swiss crime rates are not the lowest in the world, but they are close.”

“Switzerland enjoys high employment that has exceeded 98 % for most of the century.” Pg 155

“nearly every Swiss male between 20 and 50 years old has his rifle ready at home and practices regularly.” Pg 155


“Surveys, however, suggest that about 5.6% of the population had an inadequate income to meet basic physical and health standards.” Pg 172

“Little of this poverty, while real in a sense, is hard core. That is to say, few of the people who may be poor one year in Switzerland are poor two or three years later.”

“The shape of poverty in regional, ethnic, and other terms is happily even…For instance, of all the statistically poor, about 74% are of Swiss birth, and 2% are foreign born – roughly their proportion in the work force as a whole.” Pg 173


The typical Swiss surely casts more votes every year than the citizen of any other country. And the people read more newspapers per capita than in any other country in the world. (With a respectful nod to Norway, first by some measures.)” Pg 181

“Swiss newspapers make more than 95% of their sales to subscribers. This is a much higher proportion than one sees in most of Europe or in comparable parts of the U.S. – namely, large cities. “There is less pressure to sell a paper every day by having the most glaring photograph or headline, under this system.” Pg 185

“But most people are for or against [joining] the EU because they think it will be good or bad for the country, not because tit will be good or bad for them.”…”by contrast, an economic treaty with much narrower ramifications for America’s vast economy – the 1993 trade pact with Mexico [and Canada -NAFTA] – was debated largely in class or special-interest terms.”Pg 188

“Swiss public TV and radio enjoy an audience share of roughly 50%–a figure unheard of undeveloped countries.” Pg 190


“my memory of interviews with more than 500 Swiss brings to mind only a few divorced men or women.” [Table shows 29 per 100 marriages in Switzerland, 48 in the U.S.]

“In conversations about women, Swiss men are less coarse than is the Western norm, and far less coarse than the American norm. There is less of an obsession with sex in normal conversation…”Pg 195

[Adolescent pregnancy rate is 21.1 per 1000 in Switzerland, 83.6 per 1000 in the U.S.]

“Indeed, the Swiss have a higher percentage of women in their parliament, more than 20% of the combined chambers, than the U.S. or most European countries. Switzerland has now had one woman president, and following the election of another woman to the federal council in 1998, will have two more terms by women presidents by 2010, under the country’s rotating presidency.” Pg 202


“Nearly every male voter is also a military man – and, with a full-time military establishment of only about 1,000 officials or less, nearly every military man earns his living in the civilian economy. No doubt this is one reason there have been relatively few of the military scandals in Switzerland, either as to over-priced procurement items, what weapons to purchase, or other matters.” Pg 208

“Neutrality, thus, is a state of mind and personal philosophy, a broadened version of that very wise beginning of the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath: “First do no harm.” Pg 211

Switzerland Accused

Bar [head of an old investment bank in Zurich]: “I feel very proud and very ashamed of my country. I am a Swiss, and a Jew…Switzerland made mistakes – was guilty of horrible political stupidity after the war. There should have been n active effort to recompense the owners and the descendants of the dormant accounts…At the same time, Switzerland resisted the Nazis for years when she was completely surrounded.”Indeed, even before the war, Switzerland was the first country to launch a significant armament program to defend against the Nazi threat. Pg 213

Bar’s natural conflictedness was well captured when his preparatory school in the U.S., the Horace Mann School, asked him to accept an award in 1998. Bar was flattered. He would have liked to receive the honor. “But I could not accept an award in the U.S., while my country was being treated as it was by the U.S. government and in the U.S. press [in the late 1990s]… I told them, as a Swiss, I could not accept.” Pg 214

“Deutsche Bank, Ford Motor Company, Allianz, and GM all benefited from unsavory relations with the Nazi regime before or after the war. “New York State,” as Bar points out, “was the beneficiary of most of the Holocaust funds transferred to the U.S. under your escheatment laws – and never returned a penny.” Pg 215

“As a neutral nation, Switzerland naturally kept up some economic and political relations with her largest trading partner [Germany]. A secret British report lat in the war concluded that Swiss neutrality had been highly beneficial to the allies, as did such American officials as William Clayton, Dean Acheson, and John Foster Dulles.” Pg 216

“The Swiss encirclement [by Axis-controlled countries] was exacerbated by the American economic embargo of the Axis powers, which was a de facto quarantine on all of Western Europe. In December, 1941, Washington froze Swiss assets in the U.S., including substantial gold reserves. The ironic result was to drive Switzerland, needing gold reserves to conduct trade and defend its currency, into the arms of Germany…”

“The Swiss are just he people,” as the NY Times observed, “if pushed a mite too far, who would prefer to starve or die fighting rather than give in. Because they are that kind of people, they may not have to prove it in action.”Pg 225

“He [Hitler] immediately ordered his generals to draw up fresh invasion plans and described Bern – accurately- as the “center of international spying against Germany.” Pg 225

“It was no accident that Hitler linked the Jews with the Swiss in many of his eruptions. Although many Jewish refugees were turned away at the Swiss border, thousands, particularly children and families with children, were accepted. (More by far than were welcomed by any other country in per capita terms.)” Pg 226

Churchill: “I put this down for the record. Of all the neutrals, Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. She has been the sole international force linking the hideously surrendered nations and ourselves. What does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial advantages we desire or has given too many to the Germans, to keep herself alive?” Pg 226


“In Switzerland, minorities are not tolerated. They are favored” -A. Togni Pg 233

“One people, composed of several races speaking several languages; with several religious beliefs, various dissident sects, two churches both equally established and privileged; all religious questions turning into political ones, and all political questions turning quickly into religious ones – in short, two societies, one very old and the other very young, joined in marriage in spite of the age difference. That is a fair sketch of Switzerland.”-Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

“Those national cultures along the Swiss border – in many cases less separated by natural boundaries from their affinity group than the three major Swiss language populations are from one another – have been an entropic magnet, always urging the country apart.” Pg 233

“Ethnic Italians, Germans, French, Jews, and Arabs – groups that haven’t been able to get along anywhere else for centuries – swirl together within a work force more than one-fifth foreign born.” Pg 233

“Scholars and historians comparing Switzerland to such multilingual nations as Belgium, Canada, India, Nigeria, and South Africa are intrigued at the degree to which the Swiss have managed to form a bona fide nation.” Pg 234

“In almost any settings where government documents are on display, one will see four or five stacks of everything – always German and French, and frequently in Italian, English, or Romansch.” Pg 234

“There’s a sufficient diversity of different societal groupings (race, language, religion) and of different levels of government and other institutions so that most Swiss are in some important minority and some majority groups…” Pg 236

“Once again, the unusual degree of harmony between people and elites in Switzerland, the mutual respect unusual even in democratic societies, makes it very difficult to say who is leading whom.” Pg 237

“The Swiss have escaped both tyranny of the majority and tyranny of the minority.”

“In his study of America, Tocqueville was impressed by the effect that juries had as a kind of “training ground” for citizenship. Yet jury service is a rare event for Americans, something most of us will experience once or twice, for a few days. The Swiss army, as we have seen, permeates social, business and political relationships in a popular way.”Pg 244

“When asked an open-ended question about their reasons for being proud to be Swiss, most named some element of their political system, such as direct democracy.” Pg 246

“The Swiss facility with different languages has made them a natural power in the emerging world of global business… This is seen by the country’s highly disproportionate share of Nobel science prizes and international patents.” Pg 247

“Ironically, perhaps – since they already have to deal with four official languages – the Swiss leaped past much of Europe in becoming a nation skilled in English…” Pg 247

The End of History and the Next Citizen

“The people can never willfully betray their own interests; but they may possibly be betrayed by the representatives of the people” -The Federalist, No. 63. Pg 251

“Interestingly, thought, the reasons raised against direct democracy nearly all could be used, and in earlier times were used, to argue against the American Revolution; to argue it cold not be extended elsewhere, to deny the vote to blacks, women, and other groups deemed insufficiently educated, or otherwise “not ready” as a cultural or traditional matter for democracy.” Pg 252

“In focus groups and surveys, people express a rage at the system’s immobility, feelings that democracy (in America and Europe) is unresponsive to their concerns and frustrations.”

“In Switzerland, by contrast, people asked an open-ended question about what makes them proud about their country were more likely to give an answer having to do with their political system than were the next several answers combined.” Pg 254

“Who commits acts of sovereignty,” as Tocqueville noted in analyzing the Swiss poltical scene in a report to the French parliament, “is sovereign.” Pg 255

“In effect, for this highly decentralized country, initiative and referendum may have been a key legitimizing device which made action by the central and even to some extent the cantonal governments a palatable thing – as any future encroachments could be checked by the people.” Pg 255

“The maxim of indirect or representative democracy is, “Write your congressman.” The maxim of direct or populist democracy is “vote yes (or no).” Pg 256

“Second, direct democracy sharpens the ordinary sense of political responsibility. When one 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.” Pg 257

“A hundred years ago fewer than 2% of Americans aged between 18 and 24 went to university; now more than a quarter do.”

“…as any student of history knows, it is inertia and conventional wisdom that form the most powerful cabal.”

“It is hard to picture [either of the two] major parties making a major issue of direct democracy. But the latent interest in political reform among the American people is so strong that it would only take one leader.”

“Hitler and Stalin, Pinochet and Marcos – all held plebiscites when it suited them.; The test of a new application of direct democracy will be its automaticity, the extent to which it takes place not at the caprice of leaders, but of the people. [This is the purpose of the citizen initiative, sometimes categorized with plebiscites generically as referenda.] Pg 265

“Did not Japan leap into the industrial age most decisively in the mid-twentieth century, when alone among the Asian despotisms it adopted a significant degree of democracy?” Pg 266

“Swiss have a greater incentive to follow political issues and to think seriously about them – they may well be voting on them in a few months.

“Swiss politicians, journalists, and business leaders all, in turn, adjust their behavior accordingly. More focus is placed on informing, and listening to, the people, than in any other democracy.” Pg 267

“Empires such as the Swiss,” as the advisory to King Louis once put it with unintended irony, “extend their empire by the bad example of their liberty.”

“In this world, it may well be, as Victor Hugo cryptically insisted: “Switzerland will have the last word in history.” Pg 268