In a governmental system that employs direct democracy, the people of a community, region, or nation are granted the absolute freedom to dictate the course of policy. Every decision that must be made by the government is put to the people because the people are the government.
There are unique advantages and disadvantages of direct democracy which must be considered when evaluating this system of government.
The Advantages of Direct Democracy
1. It requires participation.
For a direct democracy to work, everyone must be invested in the future of their community, region, or nation. People are allowed to fully participate, share their opinions, and express their approval or dissatisfaction. Because each decision gets put to a vote, refusing to participate is, in effect, an abstention from the process. Since every vote has value in some way, more people tend to participate in this system of government than in others.
2. It requires transparency.
Many government structures provide their populations with some information, but not all information, about what is happening in the world. Within a direct democracy, all information must be shared equally to each individual. Decisions and progress rely on informed decisions by voters and that cannot happen if incomplete information is provided to the population.
3. It requires accountability.
Because the people are essentially the government in a direct democracy, accountability occurs naturally. Every person is responsible for their own part of the ruling process. If a decision is made and it turns out to be the wrong choice, the clear voting record of each individual provides accountability for their actions. Although this can lead to greater conflict between individuals, it also eliminates the double-talk and other political communications that occur in differing governmental structures.
4. It requires cooperation.
For many decisions, a clear majority can be difficult to achieve in a direct democracy. That means different societal groups are brought together to negotiate for desired outcomes. This invites people to a bargaining table and invites cooperation between more ethnicities and socioeconomic groups. People may still segregate into groups where they feel the most comfortable, but they must also work with other groups to accomplish their agenda.
5. It requires discipline.
People get to advocate for their own best interests within this type of government on a daily basis. There are no specific issues that are off-limits because every voice counts. Even when a decision doesn’t go the way someone may want it to go, there is still satisfaction in knowing that there was an opportunity to express an opinion. But then, moving forward after the decision, discipline is required to follow what the majority has mandated.
6. It requires responsibility.
In the United States, voter turnout is lower than in most wealthy nations. According to the Washington Post, about 57% of people showed up for the 2016 Presidential election. In comparison, more than 65% of people in Britain showed up to vote about the Brexit referendum. A direct democracy requires everyone to vote and laws are often in place to ensure this happens.
The Disadvantages of Direct Democracy
1. It requires more time.
A direct democracy is a slow-moving form of government, even when it is running efficiently. Because every person has the right to share their opinion and express their desires through voting, enough time must be given to allow for this to occur. There is not one person, such as a President, who can make a unilateral decision. From international treaties to treating local water supplies, every decision receives input from every individual.
2. It requires participation.
People can be excluded rather easily in a direct democracy. Because the structure is setup to provide a “majority rule,” those who find themselves in a minority position consistently may feel like they have no governmental input or access. In extreme settings, the majority position can be used for discriminatory purposes as well. Sharing and contributing are important, but many give up and refuse to participate because they feel their voices are being silenced.
3. It requires self-discipline.
The foundation of polarization in modern politics is the desire to prove a personal perspective “right” and a different perspective “wrong.” For a direct democracy to operate efficiently, there must be self-discipline in place for every participant. One may disagree with another’s views, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is wrong. Decisions aren’t about personal preferences in this form of government. Each decision must be made for the general welfare of all.
4. It requires a large monetary investment.
In the United States, more than $500 million is lost in worker productivity for a major national election. The cost of just counting votes in the US is an estimated $1 million per state, per election. Because every decision is put up for a vote to the people in a direct democracy, a large taxpayer investment is placed into this communication structure. That takes money away from other needed investments or requires a heavier tax burden on the population.
5. It requires honesty.
Elections, at their core, tend to create a conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots.” People with resources can work to convince others to vote in a way that suits their best interests, while people without that luxury must rely on word-of-mouth and grassroots efforts to get their voices heard. Without honesty built into the decision-making processes, the chances for corruption rise.
6. It requires investment.
Because everyone is out for their own best interests first in a direct democracy, everyone must invest into the government in some way. That goes beyond the simple decision-making process. People must get involved in regulatory oversight, law enforcement, military planning, treaty negotiation, and every other aspect of government on a regular basis. There are no representatives elected in this form of government to make decisions on the population’s behalf.
7. It requires more than the pocketbook.
In the US, most elections come down to a person’s pocketbook. How their financial bottom line will be impacted becomes the foundation of a vote. In a direct democracy, more must be considered, otherwise nothing would ever really get done and that could place the security of the population at-risk.
8. It requires knowledge.
People can vote on anything in any way in a direct democracy, which means an unknowledgeable vote can lead to disaster. Unless the general population willingly stays informed on all critical issues, the decisions that get made could have life-changing consequences for generations to come.
The advantages and disadvantages of a direct democracy show that having an invested voice in self-government can be beneficial. It can also be destructive when a majority of the population provides uninformed input into the decision-making process. That is why it can be such a difficult form of government to implement, especially for a large nation.