Back in the olden days of Greece, direct democracy was practiced. All citizens could vote directly on every issue decided by the state. This is significantly different to the representative democracy practiced in almost all democratic countries today, whereby the people elect a much smaller group of representatives to vote on issues that the state will decide. How does direct democracy compare to representative democracy?

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    Hello! I think this question is asking an important one, but it's currently phrased in a way that solicits opinions rather than concrete answers. I strongly suggest you edit your question into something stronger! – Aarthi Dec 4 '12 at 22:22
  • Perhaps have a look at the politics of Switzerland as an example of modern direct democracy? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_in_Switzerland – Erwan Legrand Sep 4 '14 at 10:15
  • Since the whole question, title should be rephrased, and the chosen answer doesn't focus on "where to draw the line" I have asked another question here: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/27887/… – JinSnow Feb 13 at 11:29
up vote 11 down vote accepted

With direct democracy, decisions are made by the people. Now, legislation passed by parliament is typically extremely complex. Most people don't have the time nor the inclination to read a 50 page bill, so they'll just go off what other people tell them. Even if the issue is stated in only a sentence or two, most people aren't going to bother to read up about the issue. Politicians have more time, more education and more experience than the population on average, so they should be able to make better decisions.

Unfortunately, the political process can become affected by money, where someone's sponsors or the power brokers within the party, insist on policies that benefit them or don't represent the will of the people. Politicians can be overly affected by vocal minorities - sometimes the decision that causes 5% of people not to vote for you would be the best decision for the country (think for example people in an industry who want to maximise their conditions).

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    I can't +1 one this, because Politicians don't read the bills either and the legislation is often overly complex (how many hundred pages was Obamacare again?). I seriously doubt most people in the Congress or the Senate has read that bill and knows what it says. They vote for/against it because they are told to by the party or payed to by lobbyists. – Lennart Regebro Dec 5 '12 at 6:30
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    @LennartRegebro: They probably haven't read the whole bill themselves, but I expect they have staff whose job it is to read the bill for them and give them the Cliff notes version – Casebash Dec 5 '12 at 6:35
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    Right. But the public get "cliff notes" as well. Hence this isn't a difference. I agree that Politicians should be more well informed, but they aren't. This is especially blatant when it comes to things like internet and intellectual property. – Lennart Regebro Dec 5 '12 at 7:12
  • John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said "Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state – it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage." Alexander Hamilton said, "That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity." – Lindsay Morsillo Jun 13 '14 at 20:15
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    @LindsayMorsillo The fact that famous historical figures said X or Y doesn't mean they are correct. There is an inherent problem with representative democracy. It is, in practice an oligarchy. – Joze Jul 10 '15 at 9:39

The first answer pretty much sums up the functional differences of Direct (pure) Democracy vs. Representative Democracy. But due to the prevalence of representative democracy, the phrase "Direct Democracy" is sometimes used to describe the tools which the people have to directly impact their representative democracy.

These tools are forms of political action that provide limited direct democracy:

  • Initiative - These are usually put forward by the populace, force the consideration of laws or amendments (usually by a subsequent referendum), without the consent of the elected officials, or even in opposition to the will of said officials.
  • Referendum (plebiscite) - This includes the ability to hold a binding referendum on whether a given law should be rejected. This effectively grants the populace which holds suffrage a veto on government legislation.
  • Recall - This is ability to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term, although this is very rare in modern democracies.

Direct democracy is a type of democracy that is closest to the spirit and essence of the concept of democracy. This means that people get a chance not just to vote for their representatives but also to vote on policy matters that can affect their lives. This type of democracy can, however, work when there is a small area to be administered, and the population of the area is also very small. In a representative democracy, the role of the citizens is mostly limited to taking part in general elections and giving the vote to their preferred candidates. The elected representatives have to walk a tightrope taking decisions so as to satisfy the maximum number of people in their constituencies. Here is the website where I got this information from. http://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-direct-and-vs-representative-democracy/ We however, are not a democracy. We are a constitutional republic. Here is a website that explains the difference between the two. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Democracy_vs_Republic

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    What if the population only votes on select laws - e.g. in kinda big Swiss? – user45891 Jan 28 '15 at 23:00

In Athens, they also had elected representants in some part of the structure, as is illustrated in this scheme:

Constitutional organisation of Ancient Athens

A direct democracy consisting in citizens voting for all the rules is what is considered a "pure" democracy. However, if you consider the amount of regulations in most of nowadays societies, you realise that this is a full time job, even reading all the bills in details (they employ people to do that), simply attending reunions, parliaments, attending meetings, etc. is a full time job. You can't expect all the citizens in your society to dedicate that amount of time. Plus, even if politicians aren't expert in all the subjects, they need to be well enough educated to be able to write a bill and understand the wording, the consequences, how to discuss them, etc. This is not the case of all citizens.

Furthermore, if you look at how to organise the most direct element of modern democracies: the referendum. You will see that Greece was formidably fast recently in organizing one within a week. It usually takes more time for all the information to be understood by every citizen, give time to supporters and opponents to argue, etc. So it is pretty slow, and it is expensive. This is impossible because of the sheer amount of laws being passed every day. The only way to get around that problem, is to elect professionals who dedicate themselves to such issues, and that are (or should be) as close to your personal meaning/feeling as possible.

One way to add some direct democracy into a representative democracy is to organise referendums regularly on popular initiative and important selected subjects. This is what is done, e.g. in Switzerland.

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