Direct democracy, also called as pure democracy, is definedby Theo Schiller in an article as forms of direct participation of citizens in democratic decision making, in contrast to indirect or representative democracy. Direct democracies may operate through an assembly of citizens or by means of referenda and initiatives in which citizens vote on issues instead of for candidates or parties, according to Schiller’s definition.
The term is also sometimes used for the practice of electing representatives in a direct vote rather than indirectly through an electing body, such as the electoral college, and for the recall of elected officeholders. Direct democracy may be understood as a full-scale system of political institutions, but in modern times it most often consists of specific decision-making institutions within a broader system of representative democracy.
The most important historical reference of direct democracy is to assembly democracy in ancient Greek city-states, particularly Athens, where decisions were taken by people’s assemblies of some 1,000 male citizens. Later, people’s assemblies were used in many Swiss cantons and towns as well as in town meetings in some American colonies and states. Early US states also started using procedures in which constitutions or constitutional amendments were ratified by referenda, which later became common in the US. Popular sovereignty, proclaimed in the French Revolution, had rather been distorted, however, in Napoleon’s autocratic plebiscites. Switzerland and many US states incorporated direct democracy in their constitutions during the 19th century, while Germany and few other countries adopted some elements after World War I.
Normative theory of direct democracy still rests basically on popular sovereignty, freedom, and political equality, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the outstanding theorist of unanimous consent of the people for a free republican constitution and subsequent forms of participation. During the 19th century, these principles were increasingly challenged, or they were deprived of their substance beyond representative institutions. So, in many countries, direct democratic institutions have not been established or implemented since representative elites developed a strong interest in monopolizing power. In addition, pragmatic theories contended that direct democracy could not work under space and time conditions of large modern states.
However, according to an article by Tina Freyburg, Robert Huber and Steffen Mohrenberg, populist parties and movements across Europe often support direct democracy. The authors, who distinguish between citizens who support direct democracy as a way of giving power to ‘the people’ and those, known as stealth democrats, who do so out of scepticism that politicians can be effective, write that “For their part, populist leaders and their parties often see themselves as the (only) representatives of the popular will of the people and claim to incarnate their interests and their most pressing demands. In a somewhat paradoxical way, while claiming this leadership role over a rather passive people, most populist politicians also tend to invoke the need for an unmediated relationship between them and the people as a whole. In doing so, they often emerge as champions of a direct democratic ideal that would, as they put it, give people not only a voice but a say in political affairs through, for example, frequent referendums on specific policy issues. Inevitably, this leads to the question: do populist-leaning citizens want (more) direct democracy?”
“In fact, populist and stealth-democratic support for direct democracy can be seen as underpinned by two distinct patterns of preferences,” say the authors and continue “On the one hand, citizens that display stealth-democratic attitudes are rather passive and reluctant to get involved in politics. They tend to support statements such as ‘elected officials would help the country more if they stopped talking and just took action on important problems’, and value non-political experts or business people taking control of decision-making. Accordingly, they view direct democracy mainly as a (necessary) last-resort mechanism. It serves to keep the government in check or to overturn ‘bad’ policy-making. In contrast, populist-leaning citizens regard direct-democratic procedures as a way of ensuring the direct involvement of the people in the political process.”
According to an article by Emiliana De Blasio and Michele Sorice, in recent years, the scientific debate on populism has experienced a new momentum and in this context new trends in populism studies have emerged such as those concerning the link between populism and technology. To them, the transformation of the political sphere appears today to be strongly interconnected with the digital media landscape… At the same time, a very simplistic storyline tries to overlap the rise of neo-populist parties with their use of communication technologies. A quality that is common to the many different populisms is an appeal to the use of direct democracy as a tool to empower citizens.
“Populism itself is sometimes portrayed as almost synonymous with direct democracy. At the same time, direct democracy is used by populists as a critique of the lack of participation in representative democracy and the need to make it more participatory,” say the authors and continue: “In this perspective, technology becomes a tool (and a storyline) to facilitate the use of direct democracy and the rise of a new form of ‘hyper-representation’.”
According to the paper, in many cases, the emphasis on bottom-up participation is mostly reduced to i) an emphasis on direct democracy; ii) a legitimation of authoritarian leaderships, where the ‘leader’ becomes the ‘supreme representative’ of popular interests; or iii) the phenomena of ethno-tribalism, a tactical tool for building an ‘us’ against ‘them’ tendency that enhances the popular identity against the ‘non-people’ composed of minoritarian élites. A variation of authoritarian leadership, however, is represented by politicians who deﬁne themselves as ‘new’: this constitutes an example of ‘top-down populism’ or ‘governmental populism’.
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