Sunday, November 27, 2011
The Three Pillars of Democracy

Continued from The Foundation of Democracy

Direct democracy: The people's power to mandate and veto

In the context of how sovereignty is delegated to the people and how the people grant authority to larger entities following the principle of subsidiarity, direct democracy becomes an insurance policy, that every entity which is receiving authority has to grant to its people, as a minimal guarantee that the granted authority will not be abused.

Direct democracy can only provide the people with an brute-force instrument for correcting the direction and maintaining ultimate control. It does not provide sufficient fine grained control over the high volume work of drafting and applying legislation, nor does it ensure that issues are appropriately deliberated before new legislation is created and decisions are made.

Representative democracy: The people's meritocratic secretariat

The mountain of work that is today's legislative process is something that the people need to be able to delegate to a group of volunteers, willing to labor over legal drafts with more dedication than the average citizen. That is the role of representative democracy. The people elect their representatives based on merit, with a motivation of efficiency and feeling represented in the best possible way. To the extent that these representatives do not directly draft legislation themselves, they, by choosing the executive branch, select the experts that do, and are responsible for their oversight.

The ability for the people to meritocraticly empower certain individuals to get heavily involved in overseeing the creation and application of legislation is not to be underestimated. When integrated into a framework with direct democratic control the way I am describing it here, representative democracy becomes a sandbox for leaders. They can do their good, but they can do no harm. The representative aspect of democracy is important, but has relatively little actual political power. In a sense, it merely provides the direct and the participatory pillars of democracy with administrative support.

Participatory democracy: The people's collective wisdom

On a large scale, such as a state or national level, where people can no longer meet all together to discuss the issues and vote, direct democracy can only work efficiently inside a framework that ensures issues are widely discussed by both experts and the general public and that these perspectives are taken into account before any proposals for new legislation come to a popular vote. Direct democracy requires a surrounding framework of a fine tuned political system, grinding political issues towards a consensus where all qualified minorities refrain from using their de facto veto power. With the ability to collect signatures in order to block a proposal and require it to go to a popular vote, even a relatively small minority of the people will often be able to mobilize the sympathy of the majority of the people that actually go and cast their ballot, getting the solidarity required to block new legislation.

In other words, if minority views and sentiments of the people are not taken into account when considering new legislation, the proposal will likely be vetoed into thin air in a referendum, after it has successfully passed through the entire legislative process of the federal government, the commissions, and the two chambers of parliament. This threat of potentially destroying years of work forces the legislative process to make all the efforts to attentively listen to what the people want from the very outset, and to carefully consider all minority views. Without such a practice, the direct democratic controls would bring the entire system to a grinding halt. Direct democracy, by making public participation in the early process a mandatory requirement in this way, becomes the enabler of participatory democracy. The history of the consultation procedure in the swiss system illustrates this perfectly.

Consultation procedure

Relative to Switzerland's long history of democracy, the consultation procedure has only recently evolved out of pure necessity over the past century. However, it could become the most essential pillar of democracy, with the other two, representative and direct democracy merely ensuring efficiency and control.

During the 20th century in Switzerland, the threat of a qualified minority being able to potentially kill new legislation after it has been drafted and revised for often many years in the legislative process, has forced the government to listen to minority input early on during the process, submitting drafts for public consultation and revising them based on the obtained feedback, in order to avoid a referendum or to increase the chance of new legislation to survive a referendum and be approved in a popular vote. This process has become known as the "consultation procedure" and had become common practice many decades ago, before that there ever was a formal legal requirement for it.

At the end of the twenties century the Swiss constitution was rewritten from scratch, basically a complete cleanup of it's language without changing it's meaning, bringing its text inline with the legal practice of how it was interpreted. As part of this total revision, passed by popular vote in 1999 and in force since January 1, 2000, the consultation procedure has formally become a binding part of the legislative process, with its own article in the constitution: "Art. 147 Consultation procedure: The Cantons, the political parties and interested groups shall be invited to express their views when preparing important legislation or other projects of substantial impact as well as in relation to significant international treaties."

Since 2005, when a new law and detailed regulations on the workings of the consultation procedure went into force, the draft legislation and supporting expert documentation effectively became public record and all citizens are invited to provide feedback as part of this process.

As it stands, the consultation procedure can be taken to provide the ideal platform to plug a much more sophisticated system of participatory democracy into the Swiss system, offering ample room for new innovations and solidifying this three pillar system.

Three pillars, resulting in scalable, deliberative democracy

Direct democracy, representative democracy, and participatory democracy together form a balanced and scalable system of deliberative democracy. Direct democracy and representative democracy primarily providing a stable infrastructure, with participative democracy being responsible for shaping the quality of its output. While the two other pillars must be carefully designed and enforced, participative democracy can be more freely experimented with and can be continuously re-adjusted and organized much more flexibly.

Due to its decentralized structure and stability, such a system provides vast opportunities for innovation, where new ideas can be locally experimented with, good ideas can spread, mistakes can be absorbed and lessons learned.

Part 3: Delivering on the Promise of Democracy