An Interactional Model of Direct Democracy - Lessons from the Swiss Experience

32 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2008

Date Written: June 5, 2008


Direct democratic decision-making has often been associated with populism, irrationality, and oppression of minorities as it requires allegedly "cognitive overstrained" citizens to decide on complex political issues often brought forward by special interest groups. The usage of popular initiatives in particular in the State of California seems to provide conclusive evidence for all of these shortcomings. Due to its constitutional arrangement and its diverse structure, Switzerland - which historically served as a blueprint for introducing instruments of direct democracy at the state-level during the progressive area in the United States - offers a unique case to assess these claims: More than half of the world's referenda held at the national level during the 20th century have taken place in Switzerland. At the same time, the Swiss Federal Constitution provides for limited constitutional review only, excluding Federal statutes and international law from judicial control. Based on the lessons from the Swiss experience, this paper argues not only for a more realistic approach to popular decision-making but for a more differentiated understanding of the general term "direct democracy" by pointing at the often neglected importance of the interface between institutions of direct and indirect democracy. At the same time, it cautions against simplistic demands for "popular constitutionalism". In sum, this paper champions what I call an interactional model of direct democracy.

Keywords: democracy, direct democracy, tyranny of the majority, political system of Switzerland, power sharing in multicultural societies, Swiss constitutional law, comparative constitutional law, judicial review, constitutional review, popular constitutionalism, direct democracy in California

JEL Classification: K00, K19, D72, D74, H1

Suggested Citation

Reich, Johannes, An Interactional Model of Direct Democracy - Lessons from the Swiss Experience (June 5, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Johannes Reich (Contact Author)

University of Zurich ( email )

Faculty of Law
Raemistrasse 74/8
Zurich, 8001


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