The Swiss Get Direct Democracy

Swiss citizens can vote on public policy several times a year. They can challenge new legislation to referendums with 50,000 signatures in 100 days. They can propose legislation with 100,000 signatures in two years. The fact that only two-fifths of the Swiss regularly vote does not undermine the fact that they hold political powers which Americans cannot match.Their direct democracy contrasts the billionaire-first systems of government popular across the world.

Americans have a near-zero effect on the US legislative process. That statistic was found in the Princeton Oligarchy Study. Many Americans, a la George Carlin, exclaimed “Duh!” upon first hearing about the study. According to mainstream polls Americans overwhelmingly support single-payer healthcare, free public college, campaign finance reform, and other Progressive policies. Unfortunately, the wealthy Americans who influence legislation oppose the policies that the majority of Americans want.

In Swiss Democracy citizens operate within municipalities, cantons, and nationally. So far in 2017 there have been four national referendums. Brace yourselves because this might be upsetting. Only one was rejected. Easier naturalization for third generation immigrants: approved. Road and infrastructure fund: approved. Renewable energy act: approved. Overhaul the corporate tax code to attract and retain international firms: rejected. Those with an eye for American Congressional politics know how those four laws would have been voted for by our corporate parties.

direct democracy, Switzerland

People raise their hands to vote during the annual Landsgemeinde meeting at a square in the town of Appenzell on April 29, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Democracy in Switzerland has its issues. Voter turnout is often low. In the 2017 referendums it averaged to around 45% of eligible voters. Switzerland is also one of the few EU countries without campaign finance transparency laws. In the Democracy Index, compiled by Economic Intelligence Unit, Switzerland came in 9th place in 2017. The top 5 countries are Scandinavian, minus New Zealand in fourth. Norway is number one. It scores higher than Switzerland on electoral processes, functioning of government, political culture, and civil liberties. And it scores almost two-and-a-quarter points higher on political participation.

The people of Switzerland famously voted to ban minarets in a 2009 referendum. The vote reflected anti-Islamic sentiment among the Swiss. The ban was approved despite the opposition of most of the political class. The Swiss have the opposite problem of Americans. They have enough power over their government to make discrimination law. They can submit legislation, challenge parliamentary decisions with referendums, and vote directly on legislation relevant to their lives. This is a two-sided sword, they can collect signatures for tolerance or discrimination. Americans need to rally in the millions and support corporate-friendly versions of effective policies to hope to affect policy.

There are two cantons in Switzerland where the voters meet in the town-center every Spring to vote. The rest of the country uses their own systems. Americans, especially marginalized Americans who do not participate in the political process, could benefit a lot from a system of direct participation in Democracy. It would empower people by providing them with a voice in the political process and it would build community by bringing people into contact with each other. There is no silver bullet for utopias but American Democracy does not need a miracle so much as it needs any attention from a class-conscious perspective.

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