Direct Democracy: Definition, Examples, Pros and Cons

Swiss Citizens Voting

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Direct democracy, sometimes called "pure democracy," is a form of democracy in which all laws and policies imposed by governments are determined by the people themselves, rather than by representatives who are elected by the people.

In a true direct democracy, all laws, bills, and even court decisions are voted on by all citizens.

Brief History

The first examples of direct democracy can be found in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens, where decisions were made by an Assembly of some 1,000 male citizens. During the 17th century, similar people’s assemblies were used in many Swiss towns and town meetings in colonial America. By the 18th century, early U.S. states started using procedures in which constitutions or constitutional amendments were ratified by direct democracy. During the 19th century, Switzerland and many U.S. states incorporated direct democracy in their constitutions. The continued use of direct democracy originated from three major types of developments:

  • Attempts by social classed to curb the political power of a dominating oligarchy
  • Processes leading to political or territorial autonomy or independence for legitimizing and integrating emerging countries. 
  • The transformation from authoritarian rule to democracy, as in Germany’s regional states after World War II.

Modern democracy developed as people gradually demanded a larger share of political representation and extension of representative voting rights. Constitutions, civil rights, and universal suffrage became identified with “democracy” based on the principles of popular sovereignty, freedom, and political equality.

Direct vs. Representative Democracy

Direct democracy is the opposite of the more common representative democracy, under which the people elect representatives who are empowered to create laws and policies for them. Ideally, the laws and policies enacted by the elected representatives should closely reflect the will of the majority of the people.

While the United States, with the protections of its federal system of “checks and balances,” practices representative democracy, as embodied in the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures, two forms of limited direct democracy are practiced at the state and local level: ballot initiatives and binding referendums, and recall of elected officials.

Ballot initiatives and referendums allow citizens to place—by petition—laws or spending measures typically considered by state and local legislative bodies on statewide or local ballots. Through successful ballot initiatives and referendums, citizens can create, amend, or repeal laws, as well as amend state constitutions and local charters.

Direct Democracy in the United States

In the New England region of the United States, towns in some states such as Vermont use direct democracy in town meetings to decide local affairs. A carryover from America’s British colonial era, the practice predates the founding of the country and the U.S. Constitution by over a century.

The framers of the Constitution feared that direct democracy could lead to what they called the “tyranny of the majority.” For example, James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, specifically calls for a constitutional republic employing representative democracy over a direct democracy to shield the individual citizen from the will of the majority. “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society,” he wrote. “Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.”

In the words of Declaration of Independence signer John Witherspoon: “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 agreed, stating 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.”

Despite the framers' intentions at the beginning of the republic, direct democracy in the form of ballot initiatives and referendums are now widely used at the state and county level.

Examples of Direct Democracy: Athens and Switzerland

Perhaps the best example of direct democracy existed in ancient Athens, Greece. While it excluded many groups including women, enslaved people, and immigrants from voting, Athenian direct democracy required men over the age of 20 to vote on all major issues of government. Even the verdict of every court case was determined by a vote of all the people.

In the most prominent example in modern society, Switzerland practices a modified form of direct democracy under which any law enacted by the nation’s elected legislative branch can be vetoed by a vote of the general public. In addition, citizens can vote to require the national legislature to consider amendments to the Swiss constitution.

Pros and Cons of Direct Democracy

While the idea of having the ultimate say over the affairs of government might sound tempting, there are both good and bad aspects of direct democracy that need to be considered:

3 Pros of Direct Democracy

  1. Full Government Transparency: Without a doubt, no other form of democracy ensures a greater degree of openness and transparency between the people and their government. Discussions and debates on major issues are held in public. In addition, all successes or failures of the society can be credited to—or blamed on—the people, rather than the government.
  2.  More Government Accountability: By offering the people a direct and unmistakable voice through their votes, direct democracy demands a great level of accountability on the part of the government. The government cannot claim it was unaware of or unclear on the will of the people. Interference in the legislative process from partisan political parties and special interest groups is largely eliminated.
  3. Greater Citizen Cooperation: In theory at least, people are more likely to happily comply with laws they create themselves. Moreover, people who know that their opinions will make a difference are more eager to take part in the processes of government.

3 Cons of Direct Democracy

  1. We Might Never Decide: If every American citizen were expected to vote on every issue considered at every level of government, we might never decide on anything. Between all of the issues considered by local, state, and federal governments, citizens could literally spend all day, every single day voting.
  2. Public Involvement Would Drop: Direct democracy best serves the interest of the people when most people take part in it. As the time required for debating and voting increases, public interest and participation in the process would quickly decrease, leading to decisions that did not truly reflect the will of the majority. In the end, small groups of people—often with axes to grind—could control the government.
  3. One Tense Situation After Another: In any society as large and diverse as that in the United States, what is the chance of that everyone will ever happily agree with or at least peacefully accept decisions on major issues? As recent history has shown, not much. 
View Article Sources
  1. "A Citizen's Guide to Vermont Town Meeting." Office of the Vermont Secretary of State, 2008.

  2. Tridimas, George. "Constitutional Choice in Ancient Athens: The Evolution of the Frequency of Decision Making." Constitution Political Economy, vol. 28, Sep. 2017, pp. 209-230, doi:10.1007/s10602-017-9241-2

  3. Kaufmann, Bruno. "The Way to Modern Direct Democracy in Switzerland." House of Switzerland. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, 26 Apr. 2019.

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Longley, Robert. "Direct Democracy: Definition, Examples, Pros and Cons." ThoughtCo, Feb. 2, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, February 2). Direct Democracy: Definition, Examples, Pros and Cons. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Direct Democracy: Definition, Examples, Pros and Cons." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).