If one considers a society with a more direct relationship between what people want and the policies of the country, is there any reason to believe it would not work?

In the U.S., people vote for representatives, and at that point it seems like it’s the representatives who are making the decisions.

Is there believed to be any simple governmental system that can ensure stability so society doesn’t collapse, and in a way where votes can be taken reliably and accurately without election manipulation, and in a reasonably efficient and expedient way, where most of society’s rules are just directly voted on by people?

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    googling "limitations direct democracy" gives plenty of hits. looking at britannica.com/topic/direct-democracy/Issues-and-controversies gives more details. have you looked at any of these resources and can you make your question more specific? There is really no great lack of theories about this subject so this is a very open-ended question. Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 0:24
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    The question is not clear: is it about democracy vs. non-democracy OR is it about representative democracy vs. direct democracy... and I supposed that in all these cases what is implied is liberal democracy?
    – Morisco
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 12:04
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    I sense the question assumes "representative demcoracy" and "direct democracy" are in conflict, when that's not the case. A country can have both systems running in parallel, such as Switzerland. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 8:47
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    I fear this question is partially degenerating into a discussion about the tyranny of the majority, which is a more specific question which has been discussed here before. A constitution and supreme court can go a long way to mitigate that problem, which not everyone perceives to be the problem with direct democracy. Again, a symptom of an overbroad question. Is it about tyranny of the majority? Governance challenges? Voter expertise? Special interests group capture? Voter fatigue? Right now it is an invitation for everyone to give an opinion about DD. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 19:37

6 Answers 6


Speaking philosophically, democratic systems are always a balance between efficacy and efficiency. The more fully participative a system is, the more likely it is to produce 'properly' democratic results, but the less efficient it is in terms of producing results at all. Most putative democracies use hybrid systems which allow full plebiscites in certain contexts but delegate day-to-day legislative, administrative, and judicial power to groups or individuals who can respond to changing conditions more quickly and efficiently. Such hybrid systems remain healthy so long as the authority of these groups and individuals is fully vested within the community as a whole; once administrators begin welding power as a right of office rather than something granted them by the populace, the system begins to degrade into authoritarianism.

Historical New England town halls and Swiss Cantons are generally held up as the 'purest' examples of direct democracy, though neither is entirely pure. But within such small homogeneous communities the obstacles to full participation are minimized.


There are countries like Switzerland that use direct democracy very often and the referendums there are not too difficult to call or to pass, exact rules in the source. The voters are able to make responsible decisions beyond short term benefits, like the proposal to increase the mandatory holiday duration has been rejected. There was even referendum to pay to everyone $2,510 monthly (unconditional basic income) that also failed.

Majority of laws are accepted not in referendums, but it is possible to call referendums for abolishing or establishing laws, so this looks more like a matter of economy and convenience than like some principal limitation. Voting just on everything may result too much fatique for society, it seems assumed instead that if not questioned, a project should be good enough. And, of course, only adult citizens can vote but this also looks like normal.

Hence there are evidences what direct democracy may work at least as much as implemented there. In this context likely cannot be proofs it does not work because it does. It may only be some shortcomings or examples of the wrong implementation like with everything. Switzerland is really far from an unsuccessful country. You cannot really ask "please provide the scientific evidence that birds cannot fly".

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    Of course, Switzerland is not at all a direct democracy, it's just closer to one than most countries are. It also has a population of 8.5 million, of whom less than 2/3 can vote, and it also has a fairly weak federal government. Are these factors relevant to Switzerland's relative success with its heavy use of referendums?
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 8:15
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    As with any other country, foreigners and children are not allowed to vote in referendums, if this is that you want to say.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 11:27
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    @Stančikas those rules aren't entirely universal (for complicated historical reasons, resident Irish & Commonwealth citizens can typically vote in UK referendums).
    – origimbo
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 12:31
  • @Stančikas I mostly wanted to say that the electorate is fairly small, and in saying that to note that it's smaller than the total population of the country.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 13:37
  • "Work" can be interpreted in many ways. I would say one would have to look at the Swiss example and analyse the consequences of these many referenda and compare them to other systems to decide whether it works. Simple existence in a successful country is not enough. Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 11:37

where most of society’s rules are just directly voted on by people?

In practice most people who use the term "direct democracy" just mean "have more referendums" (referenda?).

I can find no examples of a country that mostly eliminates representatives in a legislature and where the majority of laws are passed by direct vote of the general population.

It isn't clear whether you had in mind a direct democracy that eliminates all or most of the executive branch of government also.

One discussion of direct democracy that I found a useful starting point was https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/direct-democracy-primer.pdf - it certainly lists many concerns such as:

  • voter fatigue
  • short term policies predominating
  • issues mainly decided by activists
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    A President is also an activist, see the one during election rally.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 11:57
  • On the pluralization problem, you should of course say what you want (people will understand both), but the etymology supports "referendums" better, while academic use favours the "wrong" one cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/…
    – origimbo
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 12:35
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    I would also add that frequently having to vote on widely-different proposals means the average voter would have to develop expertise in multiple complex domains. Without that, voter input would not necessarily be beneficial (which dovetails with all three of your points). Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 23:27
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica The same is more or less true for all representatives who are mostly incompetent on any but a few particular issues but expected to decide on all of them. Which as a result gives a lot of power to "experts" some of which are good some of which are following their own agenda. So that's not new it would just be different. In the sense that targeted corruption of representatives would be replaced with broad misinformation. That could be more difficult or more easy depending on how gullible the population is on average and what resources the bad faith actor has in stock
    – haxor789
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 11:37
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    @haxor789 That's your take. The dislike of experts, who you felt you had to put between quotation marks along with "agenda", is a large part of the problem driving the fiasco of modern populism-based politics. Inconvenienced by covid? Ignore medical experts. Climate change mean unpleasant adaptation processes? Blame the "experts". I'll vote for political parties that seem to have real world expertise solving problems, thank you very much. I don't know anything about cars, that's why I trust mechanic "experts". Knowledge specialization is literally what got our species where we are. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 19:09

The basic problem of direct democracy is one of bandwidth: how can an ordinary citizen afford the time to become properly informed about the decisions they are being asked to vote on?

Modern society is extremely complex, and many of the everyday problems are ones of management and compromise. Arguably the best people to deal with these questions are those who are expert in them.

To take a simple example, suppose you were asked whether the people in charge of your water supply should spend $20M reducing leaks in your regional water network, or whether it would be better to spend the same amount of money on repairing old sewers? Merely to have an intelligent opinion on the question would involve some hours of study. Now multiply that by all of the thousands of technocratic decisions that must be taken every year to keep society running effectively. Clearly, government is a full time job.

Worse yet, as the population increases, so the "reward" of direct influence on the decision making process becomes diluted. What is the point of spending hours educating yourself about water supply and sewage disposal if your input is reduced to one vote amongst millions? You vote Yes, 55% of the population vote No, and that's your weekend's studying wasted.

But on the other hand simply appointing a technocracy and leaving them to it doesn't work either: the technocracy just becomes a self-serving oligarchy.

One approach which has been suggested, and even tried on a limited scale, is Citizens' Juries. The idea is to take a randomly selected group of voters (typically 20 - 30) and provide them with the time and resources to get really educated about a topic. This includes witnesses and experts who can provide the necessary background information and answer questions. The rest of the population can then be reasonably confident that they would have reached similar conclusions if they were to take the time too, and hence the findings of the Jury have democratic legitimacy. At the same time the demands on the time of the jurors are sufficiently limited to be manageable.


The U.S. has direct democracy elements in its governance and Wikipedia does list it as one of the few extant nations with Direct Democracy next to Switzerland in its article on Direct Democracy. The U.S. lacks it at a federal (aka National) level but all 50 states share elements of direct democracy in their constitutions (generally speaking the further west you moved from the Atlantic Coast, the more democratic your state became).

It should be pointed out that the U.S. drafters were very much afraid of unchecked Democracy and the risk of Tyranny of the Majority, and most of the issues leading to its independence was Tyranny of the Majority against the minority/unrepresented (essentially, the colonies were being taxed exclusively for a war they didn't start and lacked by a political entity they had no representation in and were collectively punished for protesting this and were they given a seat in parliament, they would have to deal the problems as is because one vote wouldn't change the vote enough to block the bills. Even though it was a representative democracy system, it allowed a Tyranny of the Majority to exist. The only person who could reliably stop this was The King by deigning royal assent to the law, but by that point Royal Assent had long been a formality rather than a check on government).

Much of the Constitution as intended was to balance the ability for a political entity to gain enough control to overrule another political entity (be it a state, or an opinion with popular support, or a branch of government). Given the U.S.'s own history with minority rights, it wasn't out of the box the best system in the world, and needed perfecting for sure and probably still does... but a pure Direct Democracy wasn't a better alternative.

One less alarmist complaint is best summed up in a classic Men in Black quote: "A person can be smart, but people are stupid!" While it's not necessarily political, if you've ever held an opinion that runs contrary to the opinion being shouted by the crowd around you, you can understand that while you may know you're right... you will rarely convince the mob that they are wrong. Legislators are paid to weigh the issues before it against the positions of the people they represent and the full scope of facts. It is rare that an issue is so simple that a convincing argument can be made to fit on a bumper sticker. Members of the public have their own issues to worry about without the extra burden of doing the research required to make important and effective policy decisions.

  • The British Empire was never a direct democracy and the majority of it's subjects were not represented to begin with, so how is that a tyranny of the majority and not a tyranny of the minority or simply a tyranny? It's rather that the slave owning farmers became their own aristocracy that was afraid of the unrepresented majority. That being said even if they had wanted the U.S. lacked the technical abilities for direct democracy. Like it's huge where would they gather to negotiate? In person? Via telegraph cables? The only feasible step would have been an imperative rather than a free mandate
    – haxor789
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 11:53
  • The fact that the Americans were unrepresented yet disporportiantly taxed for it is a form of Tyranny of Majority (The Laws affected an unrepresented political minority and were passed by the represented unaffected majority.). As for technical capability, the use of paper ballots has long satisfied the U.S. voting mechanics. At the time the Constitution was drafted, the U.S. was not as large as it presently is and was as large as the Eastern Seaboard.
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 13:20
  • The U.S. were colonies. They were property of the king or a company with some autonomy. Colononialism rarely features an equal representation and is usually meant to better the colonializing country not the colonies. That is in some regard tyranny but not necessarily of "the majority". And it has not the faintest thing to do with a direct democracy, you could argue whether it's a democracy to begin with. And paper ballots are for voting representatives direct democracy would feature that way more often and even just the Eastern Seaboard is large.
    – haxor789
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 14:42
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    @haxor789 You do realize that England has had a Parliament with legislative authority since the 13th century and that the Modern Balance of power between the Monarchy and Parliamentary power was occurred in 1689 and the modern body largely being established in 1707, with the union of England and Scotland? The colonists wrote about the King's problems because the King could veto legislation by not giving Royal Assent but did not. The man did not write the laws the colony rebelled against, elected ministers did.
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 18:17
  • @haxor789 And Switzerland, which has national referendums, used paper ballots and has since at least 1874. Guess how they vote on their direct democracy measures. As a U.S. Citizen, in the state I live in, I've got six referendum questions on my ballot for the next election... and it's still a paper ballot and one of the original 13 colonies to boot. How do you think the U.S. conducted elections when California had no telegram line to the east coast until 1861 and no city in the U.S. had connections until 1844 wiring of Baltimore to D.C.?
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 18:25

If we are talking about direct democracy where anyone can simply have 51% push around the 49%, then you can look at ancient Athens where people could vote to implement brutal things, like in Melos where Athens attacked the neutral city-state of Melos for not getting involved in a conflict between Athens and Sparta. The people voted to execute the entire male population of Melos and sell off its women and children simply for refusing to pick a side.

However, people forget direct democracy can work when it is modified to make it less simplistic and still give the minority some power. In addition to Switzerland being a good example of a semi-direct democracy in the modern world with referendums, there is direct democracy on the state level in some US states like Massachusetts and their initiative process that allows people - if they can get a supermajority to sign the petition and make it about a subject other than religion or restrict the Declaration of Rights in the state constitution - to get an initiative sent directly to the Office of the Attorney General of Massachusetts to be put on the ballot and be potentially voted into law. So direct democracy can work, but only if implemented in a way more complicated than simply letting a mob of over fifty percent attack anyone else who disagrees.

You even have semi-direct democracy in the libertarian community of Rojava I have talked about before that is not a pure direct democracy and still has representatives to call meetings and councils that represent minorities to balance everything in a democratic confederalist system.

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