Switzerland is where direct democracy got started, and California may be the global capital of direct democracy. But the foremost global scholar of direct democracy is a Uruguayan political scientist based in Chile.
David Altman is not a name that many in California’s ballot measure industry know, but that should change. And his new book, Citizenship and Contemporary Direct Democracy, should be read by all of the people that Joel Fox calls “initiative warriors.”
Altman’s book is academic, but it’s also very clear. And it’s short while being comprehensive—laying out what we know about direct democracy, and what we don’t know.
Altman, whom I’ve gotten to know personally via my role as co-president of the network of scholars, journalists and democratic practitioners known as the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, exposes convincingly all the hype both in favor of direct democracy and against it. Ultimately, he comes down in favor of direct democracy as a vital complement to representative democracy, but not a replacement for it. But he also shows all the problems that direct democracy can create, and how it is not a panacea.
But what is most important about Altman is the way he combines a big global picture of direct democracy, which is being used more and more around the world, with its particulars. To get direct democracy right, he shows, means to use it in context and in conjunction with representative democracy, so that democracy in its direct and representative forms is better.
Most powerfully, he shows how direct democracy, done right, can be part of the answer to the many problems and pressures now facing contemporary democracies, including the American and Californian democracies.
Among his major findings:
- Direct democracy has spread and is spreading because of international examples and successes. One can’t understand direct democracy in a single context—it’s a form that is ever evolving. California initiative practitioners are well advised to look around the world.
- Altman debunks many of the claims against direct democracy—especially that it favors right over the left, and that it is easily hijacked by populist forces. (He also shows that Machiavellian scheming by elected officials around ballot measures—like the common complaint that California attorneys general skew titles and summaries—are not all that common and have less impact than critics suggest). Indeed, there is a balance between left and right in the use of direct democracy. Backers of citizen-initiated direct democracy tools are getting more extreme, he shows, but extreme in both directions.
- Direct democracy is more effective than other participatory democracy tools, like participatory budgeting and citizens’ juries. Direct democracy has very good spillover effects—it creates incentives for political consensus, moderate majorities, expands the political playing field of ideas, and improves the relationship between citizens and representative institutions (by civic participation, broadening the topics subject to popular votes, and women’s empowerment).
Altman also offers his own proposal for reform of direct democracy—an idea that would work in California. He argues for creating a deliberative body—a citizens’ commission, with members chosen at random—with the power to offer counter-proposals to any initiative that is offered to voters. IN this form, voters would get to choose between an initiative offered by a particular party or interest, and the citizens’ commission counter-proposal.
He shows that such an approach would bring in more debate, more citizens’ education and more of a democratic spirit into the process.