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Direct Democracy: Ties between Switzerland and the U.S.

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Goran Seferovic. Goran is a senior research associate at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Law and has been our scholar in residence at the Law Library of Congress this past summer. Goran is conducting research on direct democracy and intends to publish a book on this subject. You can read more about Goran in his interview published in In Custodia Legis on October 1st, 2014.

There is a radical difference between a democracy and a representative government. In a democracy, the citizens themselves make the law and superintend its administration; in a representative government, the citizens empower legislators and executive officers to make the law and to carry it out.

James W. Sullivan (1848-1938) (The National Civic Federation Review, Dec. 1, 1913
James W. Sullivan (1848-1938) (The National Civic Federation Review, Dec. 1, 1913)

These sentences begin the book Direct Legislation by the Citizenship through the Initiative and Referendum, written in 1892 by James W. Sullivan.  Sullivan drew a strong distinction between the representative government and a “direct democracy”, by which he meant a form of government in which the citizens themselves make laws and oversee the administration of the laws. The mechanisms that would enable the citizens to do that, according to Sullivan, were the initiative and the referendum.

In a referendum citizens vote on a law or a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature. The referendum vote can either be mandatory (legislative referendum) or requested by the citizens by collecting a certain number of signatures of citizens (popular referendum). The initiative is the proposal of new laws or constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by collecting a certain number of signatures of citizens (See the National Council of State Legislators homepage).

Sullivan was a printer and editor from Pennsylvania but he was also a leader of the International Typographical Union. Sullivan learned as early as 1874 about direct democracy in Switzerland and about the writings of Karl Burkli from Zurich (Sullivan, supra at ii).

Burkli was one of the early Swiss Socialists. He moved to Texas in 1855 to take part in an endeavor to found a utopian self-sustaining community near a town in Texas called Utopia. However, the project didn’t succeed and Burkli moved back to Zurich. He took part in the movement to end the rule of the liberal majority in Zurich. In 1868 he was elected to the council for the revision of the constitution of Zurich. Being a strong advocate for direct democracy Burkli succeeded in introducing the initiative in its modern form in the constitution of Zurich, one of Switzerland’s cantons (a canton is a member state of the Swiss confederacy). The initiative provision in the constitution of Zurich enabled the citizens of this canton to draft laws and bring them to a public vote thereby circumventing the legislative procedures that are otherwise required to pass legislation by parliament.

Karl Burkli (1823-1901) (Samuel Zurlinden, Hundert Jahre: Bilder aus der Geschichte der Stadt Zürich in der Zeit von 1814-1914, Vol. II, Zurich 1915 at 70)
Karl Burkli (1823-1901) (Samuel Zurlinden, Hundert Jahre: Bilder aus der Geschichte der Stadt Zürich in der Zeit von 1814-1914, Vol. II, Zurich 1915 at 70)

Burkli proposed a special form of a Swiss Socialism in which direct democracy would in the end lead to a popular government without the need of a parliament. This idea was rejected by the German socialist leaders Marx and Engels. The writings of Burkli were translated into English and distributed though the International Workingmen’s Association (Karl Bürkli, Direct Legislation by the People, Versus Representative Government, Translated from the original Swiss Pamphlets by Eugene Oswald, London 1869).

Sullivan probably became familiar with the Swiss system of direct democracy through his contacts with international labor unions. But Sullivan also travelled to Switzerland and met with Burkli himself. The Central Library of Zurich holds a copy of Sullivan’s book with a dedication for Karl Burkli.

Sullivan was not the only one to write about direct democracy in the United States at that time. Numerous books have been published on the Swiss political system and about direct democracy. But Sullivan’s book was by far the most popular. The publication of his book was timely since the United States changed at the end of the 19th century from an agrarian to an industrialized society. Scholars have noted that large parts of the society could not profit from that development. Accordingly, farmers became poor because their revenue decreased drastically. On the other hand, big industrial and financial companies formed at that time influencing politics to pass legislation favoring their position (see Steven L. Piott, Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America, 2003). Sullivan’s book has been said to have inspired the movements against these special interests to campaign for the incorporation of direct democracy into the states constitutions (Piott, id. at 3).

Swiss Miss giving the referendum to Lady Liberty. (Dan Beard, Cosmopolitan Magazine, July 1893)
Swiss Miss giving the referendum to Lady Liberty. (Dan Beard, Cosmopolitan Magazine, July 1893)

Sullivan argued that the goal of the direct democracy movement was to circumvent the legislators whom he considered “habitually” corrupt and non-responsive to the needs of the people in a society in the transition to an industrial country (Sullivan supra at 95).

However, the movement seems to have only succeeded in parts. While most states in the west incorporated direct democracy into their systems, in the east, the south and at the federal level direct democracy appears to have been largely rejected.

In Switzerland, however, all cantons have incorporated direct democracy into their political systems, and in 1891 the initiative was also introduced at the federal level.

Whether direct democracy achieved its goal of making the state legislators in the United States more responsive to the concerns of the people is a question still debated today (See, e.g., Richard J. Ellis, Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America, 2002).

For further reading you may consult the following sources:

Thomas E. Cronin, Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall, 1989.

Thomas Goebel, A government by the people: Direct democracy in America, 1890-1940, 2002.





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