Direct democracy or pure democracy refers to direct participation of citizens in governmental decision-making.
It stands in contrast to indirect or representative democracy, where the citizens participate only indirectly.
Direct democracy examples include referenda, popular assembly, popular recall, and any other initiative in which citizens vote directly on issues instead of representatives.
The most commonly cited real-life example of a limited but still direct democracy is the assembly democracy that existed in ancient Greek city-states.
In Athens, for example, political decisions were made by an Assembly of around 1000 male citizens. Such assemblies were later used in Swiss towns and American colonies. They were also fairly common and widespread in preindustrial societies (Cherkaoui, 2019 & Glassman, 2017).
Direct Democracy Definition
Direct democracy, also known as a pure democracy, is a political arrangement in which the people vote on policy issues without elected representatives serving as proxies. It helps ensure that government has limited powers and exercises the will of the people.
Depending on the context, direct democracy might entail passing executive decisions, the use of sortition, making laws, directly electing or dismissing officials, conducting trials, and so on.
The most common forms of direct democracy are:
- Participatory democracy: people participate individually and directly in political decisions and policies (Wolfe, 1985).
- Deliberative democracy: authentic deliberation, not just voting, is the primary source of legitimacy (Bohman & Rehg, 1997). The term deliberative democracy was coined in Joseph M. Bessette’s 1980 work Deliberative Democracy: The Majority Principle in Republican Government (Bessette, 1980).
- Semi-direct democracy: the representatives in a semi-direct democracy administer governance, but the citizens remain sovereign. Under such a government, the people have three main forms of popular action: (1) referendum, (2) initiative, and (3) recall. The former two are examples of direct legislation (Smith, 2009).
(See other types of democracy here).
Important theorists of direct democracy include Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), John Stuart Mill (Thompson, 1976), Karl Marx (1871/1968), Friedrich Engels, Mikhail Bakunin (1871/1980), Oscar Wilde, and George Douglas Howard Cole (Caves, 2004, p. 181).
Direct Democracy Examples
- Referendum: A direct vote by the electorate on a proposal, law, or political issue, to ensure popular sovereignty. This is the most common expression of direct democracy. Other terms commonly used to denote the same thing are votation, popular consultation, ballot question, ballot measure, and proposition.
- Optional referendum: A referendum that comes from a request by governmental authorities or the general public. Popular initiatives to request or repeal a law are the most common form of optional referendums. Organizing an optional referendum often requires the collection of signatures from the public.
- Mandatory referendum: Also known as an obligatory referendum. This term refers to all referendums that are legally required to be held under specific circumstances. This is in contrast to optional referendums. The most common example is a required referendum to adopt or amend a national constitution.
- Legislative referendum: Also known as a legislative referral, authorities referendum, authorities plebiscite, or government-initiated referendum. This term denotes referendums in which a legislature puts proposed legislation up for a popular vote. Such referendums may be optional or mandatory. In a legislative referendum, the electorate approves or disapproves of laws that the legislature puts forward.
- Initiative referendum: A measure is put directly to a referendum on which the electorate votes. In contrast to legislative referrals, in this case, the voters both initiate and decide on the changes in law, proposal, or political issue. Such an initiative may be direct or indirect.
- Popular referendum: Also known as a citizens’ veto, people’s veto, citizen referendum, statute referendum, and suspensive referendum. This term refers to a referendum that provides a means by which a petition is signed by a minimal number of voters to force a public vote on an existing statute, amendment, or ordinance. A popular referendum, in contrast to the initiative and legislative referendums, allows the electorate to suggest repealing existing legislation.
- Recall referendum: Also known as a recall election, recall petition, or representative recall. This term refers to a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a referendum before that official’s term runs out. Recalls are initiated when a sufficient number of voters sign a petition.
- Popular assembly: A gathering of people called to address political issues. Assemblies tend to be freely open to participation and operate by direct democracy. Such assemblies are often created to counteract democratic deficits and often function as alternative power structures working with other forms of government.
- Participatory budgeting: A type of citizen sourcing in which ordinary citizens decide how to allocate parts of a municipal or public budget through a process of direct democratic deliberation and decision-making.
- Plebiscite: A plebiscite is like a referendum but the result is non-binding, so it can be overruled by a parliament. Nevertheless, a plebiscite is usually de facto direct democracy because most liberal governments feel compelled to enact the will of the people expressed in a plebiscite. An example of this in action is the same-sex marriage plebiscite in Australia in 2014.
Pros of Direct Democracy
- Legitimacy: The most obvious strength of direct democracy, in contrast to representative democracy, is that it gives more power to the people.
- Accountability: In a representative democracy, elected officials are less accountable for what they do after they are elected. In a direct democracy, the wants and needs of the people can be stated more clearly and enforced more effectively.
- Justice: According to Wolfe (1985), direct democracy provides the means for a more just and rewarding political arrangement instead of a strategy for preserving the status quo.
- Educational value: Direct democracy also might have an educational effect. Since people have greater responsibilities and more power, the electorate becomes more and more skilled at making political decisions and well-versed in policy issues. Direct democracy can, therefore, grant the ability to participate and improve how well the people can participate in large-scale decision-making (Pateman, 2012).
Cons of Direct Democracy
- Requirement for an informed citizenry: Most criticisms of direct democracy are based on the disbelief in the electorate’s capability to bear such a responsibility and make rational decisions.
- Burdensome: Many people do not wish to participate because they lack the time, skills, and knowledge required to vote directly on political issues. For such voters, it might be more cost-effective to rely on the expertise of elected representatives (Wolfe, 1985).
- Hard to administer: The feasibility of direct democracy in a large and heavily populated country is also often put into question. Institutional adjustments required to make greater direct participation possible still require representative elements. Consequently, a direct democracy often still relies on some types of representation to sustain itself (Plotke, 1997).
- Slow to see results: Another criticism often raised against direct democracy is the idea that if everyone had to vote on every political issue, nothing would ever get done because this would slow down the decision-making process. Extreme situations require urgent responses. Responding quickly and effectively to an emergency is something that must be done without a direct vote.
See Also: Pros and Cons of Democracy
Direct vs Representative Democracy
The majority of currently established democracies are representative democracies in which the citizens vote for parties or candidates instead of political decisions.
For example, in representative democracies, a political candidate might run a campaign to gain a following. They might try to give the people a general idea of what they will do if elected.
Once political candidates are elected as representatives of the people, they can begin making their own decisions. As long as they are representatives, their actions are legitimized by the fact that they were democratically elected.
By contrast, in a direct democracy, people don’t elect such representatives. The people vote directly on political issues. The people take specific individual decisions.
Read Next: Dictatorship Examples
Direct democracy, also known as a pure democracy, is a political arrangement in which the people vote on policy issues without elected representatives serving as proxies.
There are many forms and specific initiatives that can be considered instances of direct democracy. Nowadays, most established democracies are representative democracies where the people vote for candidates and parties, not proposals.
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Bessette, J. M. (1980). Deliberative democracy : the majority principle in republican government. In How democratic is the constitution?. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
Bohman, J., & Rehg, W. (1997). Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. MIT Press.
Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge.
Cherkaoui, M. (2019). Essay on Islamization: Changes in Religious Practice in Muslim Societies. BRILL.
Glassman, R. M. (2017). The Origins of Democracy in Tribes, City-States and Nation-States. Springer.
Marx, K. (1968). The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune. International Publishers. (Original work published 1871)
Pateman, C. (2012). Participatory Democracy Revisited. Perspectives on Politics, 10(1), 7–19. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592711004877
Plotke, D. (1997). Representation is Democracy. Constellations, 4(1), 19–34. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8675.00033
Rousseau, J.-J. (1762). Du contrat social, ou Principes du droit politique. https://data.bnf.fr/12026984/jean-jacques_rousseau_du_contrat_social/
Smith, G. (2009). Democratic innovations: Designing institutions for citizen participation. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press. http://archive.org/details/democraticinnova00smit
Thompson, D. F. (1976). John Stuart Mill and Representative Government. Princeton University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x18nq
Wolfe, J. D. (1985). A Defense of Participatory Democracy. The Review of Politics, 47(3), 370–389. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034670500036925