We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Thursday, April 3, 2008

Book Review: Direct Democracy in Switzerland

This book review gives a solid description of the book Direct Democracy in Switzerland and the necessity for writing it. - Editor

Direct Democracy in Switzerland

New Brunswick: Transaction Publications - 2002
by: Gregory A. Fossedal

A Review:

From the Foreword to the conclusion some 450 pages later this is a noteworthy study. I recommend it highly not only to American readers but readers globally.

Because the Preface----written by Alfred R. Berkeley III--is remarkably apt in providing a bird's eye view and germane to my assessment, it merits quoting at some length:

Great books must either tell a gripping story, impart vital information, or expose an important new idea. In. Direct Democracy in Switzerland, Gregory Fossedal has done something rare--he's done a little bit of all three.

The result is a highly readable story ... [about] the world's only 1,000 year democracy.

At the same time, Fossedal tells how one of the world's countries least blessed with physical resources has come to be, arguably, the most successful economy in the world, and how a nation with pervasive religious and linguistic divisions enjoys profound social tranquility--information that is surely important to people around the world.

Finally, Direct Democracy in Switzerland raises important issues for the future of democracy itself. In this it resembles Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which suggested the need for political freedom to a Europe straining under the dead hand of aristocrats and top-down, elite politics. For, as Fossedal notes, the Swiss democracy is very different from any other system in the world. Switzerland's direct democracy--in which the people, by initiative and referendum, wind up voting directly on a large number of policies that affect their lives--is sufficiently different that it might be called, as the former foreign editor of The Economist, Brian Beedham, once suggested, a “different system” altogether.

Certainly, democracy in Switzerland is very different in some important features than democracy in America, Asia, or the rest of Europe today. Switzerland thus may function as a kind of laboratory. It has a purity in applying the democratic idea, and it has a. long history as a functioning cluster of democracies. That history is more than four times as long as the next longest-running democracy, the United States (p. 6).

A look at the Table of Contents suggests an initial question: why devote one of the book’s five parts wholly to the history of the forming of Swiss people from the 11th century to the present? The answer: it immerses the reader immediately into a distinctive character of this study. This is a study of the Swiss people finding and developing themselves over time as a self-governing polity as much as it is about a direct democracy structure. Moreover what this history reveals about the origins of the Swiss as a democratic nation is enhanced by an abundance of vignette encounters tellingly inserted throughout derived from the author's first hand experience interviewing Swiss citizens and officials. These anecdotes reaffirm with consistency: this is a polity whose way of going about democracy is one of reasonableness, common the Information Age an idea whose time has come. Therein, Fossedal suggests a message which crescendos in the fifth and concluding part of his study: the Swiss political reality of democracy suggests what are dormant possibilities, and indeed promises in the democracies of other nations. So abundant is his evidence, it coalesce into something approximating an empirical demonstration of the following thesis:

The Swiss polity, as an historical and on-going exhibit in the exercise of deliberative direct democracy is a persuasive rebuttal to the stand of elites from the Greeks of yesterday and those of the our founding to those of today who hold that exclusionary representative democracy, in itself, is a better form of democracy than a direct democracy in partnership with representative democracy. In a word, an effective rebuttal to the stand; you can't trust the people.

I see this thesis seminally expressed in Fossedal’s statement: “Switzerland answers the potential question of the political scientist or citizen: What happens if we place so much faith in the people that we make them lawmakers?” (p. 21).

The book is laid out in five pans.

Part 1: Conception. The author begins by offering an account of his “pilgrimage”--presumably in the late nineties--on the train to the town of Schwyz where the cherished national founding document, the “Bundesbrief,” the “charter of allegiance,” the “confederation bond” entered into in 1291, is preserved. This immediately draws the reader into the story line of this study. This story aspect crops up throughout the study via the abundant face to face encounters with Swiss citizenry anecdotally described.

Part 2: History. In three relatively short chapters Fossedal covers a thousand years of Swiss history. Throughout he focuses on how the Swiss confederation formed itself through governing structures into a highly diversified self-governing nation. At first the dominant dynamic in bringing this about was more the desire of neighboring peoples to free themselves from the social and political oppression and seeing confederating with the Swiss as an escape from their political bondage. At the outset neighboring peoples backed into the Swiss confederate enclave in their quest for liberty. In later times the dominant force, Fossedal suggests, has been simply the unmistakable attraction of the Swiss model of a self-governing people. The draw of democracy which the Swiss experience exudes continues to reveal itself in the study's detailing. And in the end it adds up to a persuasive apologetic for the possibilities within democracy everywhere.

Part 3: Institutions. Here Fossedal examines the Swiss Constitution, its structure, powers and procedures; its Executive, Judiciary and Parliament as well as the procedure and operation of Referendum. The latter described in Chapter 9, is a chapter not simply to be read but studied.

Part 4 Issues. In this penultimate Part, Fossedal devotes a chapter to each of nine major issues of social and political life: education; taxes; crime; welfare; press; family; army; holocaust; and diversity. Here the reader may, without jeopardy to gaining a grasp of the over arching message of this study, move more quickly and/or pick and choose in one's reading. The over-all thrust of this fourth Part is, once again, via anecdote and reasoning, making the case that democracy which includes a structure of constitutional governance whereby the people can deliberate and legislate directly. really ‘works.’

Part 5 L’idee Suisse In the final segment of the study, Fossedal does so much more than impart information and make a ‘pitch’ to the rest of national democracies to follow the Swiss idea of democracy. Here Fossedal's study rivals the analysis, critique and prognosis of democracy done by Alexis de Tocqueville on the American democratic experiment more than a century and a half ago.

In a concluding portion of his final chapter: “The End of History and the Next Citizen” Fossedal looks to the future and wonders: who will be the first to emulate “the Swiss system”? With respect to the United States, Fossedal sees “a complete outsider” the more like possibility for enabling this advancement. He intimates it coming about by an ‘outsider’ leader among the people. This, in turn, suggests through its electorate directly amending the Constitution outside of Article V--the validity and legality of which Yale constitutional law scholar, Akhil Reed Amar, trenchantly argues.
[1] This, in fact, is now beginning to transpire.

For the past decade a project to accomplish this has been underway. In 1989 Mike Gravel
[2] initiated the “Philadelphia II” project as a result of pondering the creation and ratification of the U. S. Constitution. The Philadelphia convention of 1787 and the subsequent ratification of the U. S. Constitution by the people through special ratification conventions did not involve any legislative action of the Congress or of the states. Rather it was a act of the people, albeit legitimated by actions of the Confederation Congress and Assemblies of the States, constitutionally empowered by “First Principles” as James Madison pointed out to the Maryland delegate, Charles Carroll. This “Philadelphia I” model inspires the “Philadelphia II” to bring about introduction of direct democracy in the United States in one First Principles legislative act .

In rounding out this assessment of Fossedal's study, I offer a word on the centerpiece Swiss procedure of Referendum. First, in the Swiss structure this is an umbrella term for both the procedures of Initiative and Referendum. In labelling the latter as the less-than-complete form of direct democracy procedure, I wish to underscore the fact that, formally, in all Referenda, the representative legislatures are the crafters and thus the managers of that which the people directly vote on. Not so in the latter. With an initiative, the people initiate, debate and carry the proposal to electoral finality. In a referendum, it is a mixture of representative and direct democratic action. In the case of an initiative it is more clearly affirmed that the people are committing the act of sovereignty and according to Tocqueville showing who is the “Sovereign.”

At the head of the final chapter Fossedal states:

There is little point in studying Swiss democracy unless there is something distinctive about it--and not only distinctive, but importantly distinctive. If this is a bad assumption, then Switzerland is worth thinking about only for the specialist.

The Swiss and their experience with democracy as demonstrated by Fossedal's study validates this as a sound assumption. What the author accomplishes in this study is the layout of a lesson plan for democracies of the world still locked in the undeveloped stage of democracy at arms length from the people, the real Sovereign. Following this lesson plan built on the Swiss system is the 'end of history' for democracies of the world in the 21 st century. Gregory A. Fossedal in Direct Democracy in Switzerland makes his case.

[1]There are four law journal articles which together develop a pioneering thesis of Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar concerning majority rule popular sovereignty highlighted in amendment of the Constitution outside of Article : “Of Sovereignty and Federalism,” Yale L J. Vol 96:7 (June 1987); “Philadelphia Revisited: Amending the Constitution Outside Article V, ” Univ. of Chi. L Rev., (Vol 55:4, Fall, 1988); “The Consent of the Governed: Constitutional Amendment Outside Article V” Columbia Law Rev. Vol. 94, pp. 457-508 and “The Central Meaning of Republican Government: Popular Sovereignty, Majority Rule, and the Denominator Problem,” Univ. of Colo. Law Rev. Vol. 65, 1994, pp. 749-786.

[2] Former two term U. S. Senator (Alaska) 1969-81


The following website provides some basic information that can help one understand the reason for writing the book - direct democracy is flourishing in Switzerland!

And to read the book yourself please see:,M1

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