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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 141-153

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Public opinion and direct democracy

Russell J. Dalton, Wilhelm Bürklin, and Andrew Drummond

Over the past quarter-century, tensions have grown in most Western nations between the existing processes of representative democracy and calls by reformists for a more participatory style of democratic government. Voter turnout is down, as is public trust in parties and representative institutions generally. These signs point to growing public dissatisfaction with the current system of representative democracy. 1

At the same time, popular demands for new direct forms of political involvement and decision making, especially referenda, have increased in many Western democracies. 2 But the potential for political change goes far beyond referenda. In most Western democracies, more people today are signing petitions, joining citizen interest groups, and engaging in unconventional forms of political action. 3 Citizens are also calling for a greater role in government advisory and administrative bodies, especially at the local level.

Some even ask if democratic nations are shifting wholesale from representative democracy toward a more participatory approach. President Clinton's former adviser Dick Morris, a highly pragmatic political analyst, recently concluded that "the fundamental paradigm that dominates our politics is the shift from representative to direct democracy. Voters want to run the show directly and are impatient with [End Page 141] all forms of intermediaries between their opinions and public policy." 4 Do people want more direct involvement in the political process in a way that threatens to erode the historical reliance on the institutions of representative democracy?

This article examines the tension between representative and direct democracy as displayed in the attitudes of contemporary Europeans. In addition, we examine the factors that drive these opinions, illuminating what may be in store for all the advanced industrial democracies. We draw our evidence from a variety of sources: A recent survey of the German public gives detailed insight into opinions in one key nation, and supplementary evidence is taken from the Eurobarometer survey of the 15 member states of the European Union.

We focus on two major forms of democratic rule: representative and direct democracy. Although there are many potential forms of democracy, the political debate has generally emphasized this dichotomy. 5 On one side of the democratic spectrum stands the model of articulating citizen demands through representation. This model often takes the form of party-based parliamentary rule and functions primarily through elected representatives. Citizens express their preferences at elections, but public policy is actually made by the representatives that the citizenry selects. In a variety of forms, this has been the system of choice in nearly every modern democracy.

At the other end of the spectrum is the model of direct democracy, placing control of government in the hands of the people themselves. This model argues that citizens themselves can make wise decisions on political matters, whether through referenda, town meetings, citizen initiatives, or other direct means.

One of the most common criticisms of direct democracy has been that it is unable to function efficiently in large polities. In these cases, party government streamlines the decision-making process, inevitably resulting in a system of representative rule. To counteract the negatives associated with representative rule--such as the centralization of decision-making power in elites--the process may be modified by such measures as term limits and rotation principles.

The Case of Germany

The history of the Federal Republic of Germany has long mirrored this debate. 6 During the country's creation following World War II, its constitutional framers eradicated the elements of direct democracy that had existed in the Weimar constitution and opted for a system of strong representative democracy--an institutional response to the political instability of the Weimar era, as well as a reflection of their general distrust of the people's capacity to act wisely. The subsequent development of the communist regime in the German Democratic [End Page 142] Republic (GDR) further stigmatized the image of direct democracy in the West.

The forerunner of the contemporary push for direct democracy in Germany was the...


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