Is 'Direct Democracy' Good for Democracy?

Susan Stokes | Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago

Monday, April 12, 2021 12:15 PM



Democracy in today's world is synonymous with representative systems. Yet the majority of representative democracies institutionalizes mechanisms of "direct" democracy: referendums, plebiscites, citizens' initiatives, or recalls. The persistence of these institutions suggests that giving citizens the ultimate say in some matters of national public policy adds to the legitimacy of representative systems. Some recent referendum results -- the Brexit vote in the UK and the disapproval of peace accords in Colombia -- have signaled for many the risks of direct democracy. In this paper I first explore arguments in favor of limited direct agency for voters suggested by earlier theorists of representative government. I then explore the strategic reasons why real-world political leaders sometimes decide to delegate important decisions to voters. In some instances, though probably rarely, politicians decide to hold referendums for reasons that theorists would approve of.
Co-Sponsored by: Quantitative Collaborative