Ian Budge's "Direct Democracy: Setting Appropriate Terms of Debate"

A summary by Howard Fienberg

for Andreas Pickel, November 14, 1995

The article "Direct Democracy: Setting Appropriate Terms of Debate," by Ian Budge, explores different ways of looking at direct democracy. "While citizens of modern states clearly cannot meet directly together," as in Athens, they can meet together in cyberspace and communicate in all manner and fashions. (137) Most importantly, Budge's article challenges the traditional view that direct democracy equates with an unregulated mob rule. Also, Budge charges elitist democrats with essentially favoring authoritarian rule to democracy, and that as such, representative democrats have far more in common with direct democrats, and have more to gain by working together.

Budge begins by differentiating between two main types of direct democracy, unmediated popular voting, and party-based direct democracy. In the unmediated model, the executive would have mostly an administrative role. There would be "no political parties, no advisory bodies, and no entrenched rights." Politics would become a "perpetual referendum." (138) Budge does not condemn this model altogether, but he does note that it is not the only institutional possibility for direct democracy, as is attested to by most opponents of direct democracy.

The second model proffered he finds to be more pragmatic, adopting existing party structures to direct democracy, giving them "the same role in guiding and organizing popular voting as they do now for legislative voting." (140) He recognizes the increased possibility of government measures being turned down by the popular vote, but it is not an insurmountable problem, since measures can be taken to qualify the majorities needed in votes, governments could be ensured reasonable lives, and more than one vote may be taken. Budge states that "the citizen's decision making" can be dispatched with guidance, or with "some degree of institutionalization and binding procedures." Included may be minority rights and safeguarding the communications process. (142)

Budge then goes on to face up to arguments against direct democracy. Shifting majorities is one argument. Budge says that this may not be due to inherent fickleness, "but because they are communicating something." (143) Different problems and priorities may need to surface. As well, it could indicate long-term opposition to the ruling government.

Another argument made is that the popular vote is "ill informed and apathetic," a problem Budge finds to be "not necessarily insurmountable." (145) If included in the system, it would be in parties' interests to mobilize and stimulate voting turnout and argument. A minimum voting level could be introduced, or voting could be compulsory. "Combined with suitable civic programs in colleges and on the media," there will be definite increases in mass attention and interest. (146)

Finally, Budge tackles the elitists head on. He challenges the view that experts and specialist technocrats are required to run a state, and he upholds the right to participation. He quotes Parry as saying that "knowledge is not of one piece and therefore cannot be the monopoly of one group of specialists." (149) In conjunction, the sciences are not closed bodies of knowledge, and via the specialists and professionals, citizens are more informed of these fields than in the past. When elitists lay claim that the masses are to simplistic, they neglect that "everyone uses calculating and simplifying rules." (151) Even the "attempt to mobilize social choice theory" as opposition to direct democracy ends up arguing against democracy as a whole.

Such is the conclusion of Ian Budge that the elitists are arguing democracy away overall. His remedy is that the representative democracies must adapt and become more direct, or risk losing out in the long run to the elites' views.


Return to Howard Fienberg's home page