A direct democracy is a system that allows the people to make all the decisions themselves, and it is rarely practicable today. We do use it in a way when we hold referendums, but no government is bound to follow those decisions. You would think that direct democracy would be the best possible government – a true
government of and for the people. Yet, if we look around today, we see precious few examples of any state simply allowing its people to govern. Thomas Jefferson,
one of the inspirations behind the USA Constitution, once said:
‘That government is the strongest of which every man feels a part’
But is that really possible?
Are There Problems with Direct Democracy?
1. It becomes impossible to reach agreement in a modern state with a large voting population of many millions of people.
2. It will be the will of the majority who bother to take part in elections that will prevail, not necessarily the majority of people in the state. These might be influential for the wrong reasons, and that would be undemocratic.
3. It is cumbersome and costly, and open to much corruption.
4. There are strong indications that most people would not have the interest or time to make these decisions. Turnout in elections in major democracies can often be very low.
5. Uninformed voters will think of themselves rather than what is best for the state as a whole.
6. Many of the issues of modern government are too complex for ordinary people to understand.
7. It could lead to rule by the mob and be open to emotional decisions
It would be possible to argue against all of these objections, especially by attacking the alternative form of democracy – the idea of representative or indirect democracy which refers to voters electing other people (representatives) to make the decisions of government for them. So, what might be the advantages of direct democracy over indirect?
Arguments for Direct Democracy
1. The people elected tend not to be representative of the people who live in the state as a whole. In western democracies like the UK and the USA, they tend to be male, white and from an educated background. Direct democracy overcomes this problem.
2. Some voting systems, like simple plurality used in the UK and USA, don’t produce true representation in terms of seats won. This makes citizens lose interest in government. Direct democracy overcomes this problem.
3. Once elected, representatives can become corrupted and want to become personally successful. This makes them follow the orders of the party leader rather than the interests of the people. Direct democracy overcomes this problem.
4. The problems of vast numbers voting with direct democracy can be overcome by use of modern technology like the Internet.
5. We already use direct democracy when we hold referendums in the UK, and this has worked effectively in recent years.
6. Direct democracy means that governments will be directly accountable to the citizens of the state all the time. They would always worry about the interests of the people rather than just pretend to at election time.
Source: AS Government & Politics
Course Companion for Edexcel, Unit 1: People and Politics, 3rd Edition, January 2011
R. Cochlin MA Dip ASE