Why Not Direct Democracy?

“Direct democracy” refers to the form of government in which all policy initiatives are determined by direct popular vote. The closest approximation to that of which I am aware is in Switzerland where, although there is in fact a bicameral legislature, all matters of substantial scope are approved by popular vote. H. L. Mencken called that “mobocracy”. The Founding Fathers were deeply distrustful of it. In Federalist 55 James Madison wrote:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.

Our present government is blithely referred to as a “democracy” but in reality it is quite distant from a democracy and becoming more so all of the time. That’s not merely because small states have equal representation to large ones in the Senate as averred by many of those who complain about “rule of the minority” but, as Ezra Klein recently astutely observed, our political parties are dominated by “those who staff and donate to them” and they are more radical than most party members.

So, why not direct democracy? I think the reason can be inferred from American opinion on the issue presently dominating news broadcasts, abortion. Consider Gallup’s determination going back 50 years:

The results are even more stark when the question is phrased more specifically. Fully 71% of Americans think that third trimester abortions should be illegal.

Given that perspective complaints about our undemocratic system ring hollow. Those making such complaints don’t mind minority rule as long as they’re in the minority that rules.

That brings me to my own principle complaint about our present system of government. Neither extremists who call themselves Democrats nor extremists who call themselves Republicans represent me or anything that approximates my views and my views are demonstrably closer that of most voters than either one of those groups. How democratic is it, what good does it do me to vote when all of the candidates share similar views and those views are little like my own?

If you cannot tell from the contents of this post, I have just returned from voting in Illinois’s primaries. I left a lot of blanks.

6 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    I thought about leaving blanks but what I do is vote for or agains the people I really know something about. Then I alternate between R and D for the rest of the votes. I am just paranoid enough to be concerned that someone might challenge a ballot with too many blanks as one that was a mistake.


  • what I do is vote for or agains the people I really know something about.

    I do that as well but I do not have the alternative of voting for both Democrats and Republicans. In Illinois primaries there is a Democratic ballot, a Republican ballot, and a non-partisan positions only. There aren’t many of those.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I don’t vote in primaries as I mostly enjoy my independent status, though tomorrow morning I’ll probably regret the choices others have made. I would love to have a choice for Governor that is not Darren Bailey, who might be the worst gubernatorial candidate Illinois has had in my lifetime. I’m hoping Mary Miller loses, but I don’t live in that district (nor does she I believe). I’m not sure there is anybody I’m for.

  • steve Link

    Forgot it was a primary. For those wife and I talk it over. If there is someone we really want to vote against or for (usually against) we change our registration.


  • steve Link

    Interesting that you emphasize the 71% number. What is really notable is that 85% think abortion should be legal in some form.

    What should also be asked, probably too much nuance, is if a woman finds the fetus has lethal birth defects and will die in an hour or two after birth, should that 3rd trimester mother be forced to carry to term.


  • I agree that would have been an interesting question but they didn’t ask it.

    As I have said before I thought that despite its flaws Roe v. Wade should not have been overturned. Although I think that abortion is wrong, I don’t think that everything that is wrong should be against the law.

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