Can Direct Democracy Work? — Examining Common Objections
What is a democracy? How did the original users of the word define it and practice it? How do we typically define democracy in the context of modern nation states?
The word “democracy”, while it refers to a system of government “by the people”, can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. In this article, I want to focus on the idea of direct democracy, which some people also refer to as “true democracy”. Culturally, we make a lot of assumptions about the nature of this idea — assumptions which are based on a rich philosophical literature, and so tend to largely go unchallenged.
In this piece, we’ll look at some of the literature that helped create those preconceptions.
Can We See Direct Democracy in Action?
Many of the most respected scholars of Greek politics — people like Josiah Ober, for example — categorize classical Athens as a “direct democracy”, because the citizens met regularly in large assemblies to make decisions. But even Athenian democracy contained elements of representation.
Aside from classical Athens and nearby cities in ancient Greece, I know of only two other civilizational cultures that have been labeled a “direct democracy” (we will examine this idea more later): Switzerland, and Rojava (the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria). But Switzerland also contains elements of representation, and Rojava’s label as a democracy is controversial and little-studied¹ — therefore, we will leave scrutiny of these cases to a later date.
Why is a completely direct democracy so rare?
It turns out, there’s a lot of opposition to the idea — both in modern democracies, as well as throughout history.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common objections, and who has made them.
“There never was and never will be a real democracy in the strict sense of the word. It’s against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should be continually in session dealing with public affairs, and obviously they couldn’t set up commissions for that purpose without changing the form of the administration.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 3 Part 4
1. Direct Democracy is “Mob Rule”, a “Tyranny of the Majority”
When people talk about “majority tyranny”, they usually cite a small group of philosophers including ancient Greeks and Romans, the political founders of America, and the authors that inspired or were inspired by them. Plato, Aristotle, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, all surface in modern discourse on the idea of majority tyranny.
Aristotle writes of his fifth form of democracy:
“that in which, not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power […] this sort of democracy, which is now a monarch […] grows into a despot; the flatterer is held in honor; this sort of democracy being relatively to other democracies what tyranny is to other forms of monarchy. The spirit of both is the same, and they alike exercise a despotic rule over the better citizens. The decrees of the demos correspond to the edicts of the tyrant…” (1)
The idea is that a majority will steamroll the rights of minority interest groups, in essence becoming like a monarchical tyrant.
James Madison, like many a framer of the American Constitution, shared Aristotle’s fears of excessive democracy. As a “Federalist”, he wrote and spoke frequently about the inevitable chaos he believed would descend upon the newly-emancipated United States under the mantle of a pure democracy. Federalists supported a strong central government, with less power vested in the states; their opponents, the Anti-federalists, threatened not to ratify the Constitution unless they could secure democratic protections. Anti-federalists believed the states should decide laws for themselves, and that a federal government should oversee only the minimum necessary functions for keeping the country unified. We have them to thank today for the Bill of Rights, which was instituted as a compromise, but which most Federalists at the time opposed. (2)
We find the following statement in Madison’s famous “Federalist #10”:
“From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” (3)
Political philosophers throughout history have expressed fears about the tyranny of majority rule — although they do not always use this keyword. Hungarian political philosopher Tamás Nyirkos, who has spent his career studying the idea of majority tyranny, believes that the term originates with John Adams. In Vol. III of his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Adams writes:
“There is in short, no possible way of defending the minority in such a government, from the tyranny of the majority, but by giving the former a negative on the latter, the most absurd institution that ever took place among men. As the major may bear all possible relations of proportion to the minor part, it may be fifty-one against forty-nine in an assembly of an hundred, or it may be ninety-nine against one only: it becomes therefore necessary to give the negative to the minority, in all cases, though it be ever so small. Every member must possess it, or he can never be secure that himself and his constituents shall not be sacrificed by all the rest.” (4)
After John Adams phrases the concept in this way, we start to encounter it over and over again, appearing as a term in subsequent literature, and eventually becoming the iconic phrase it is today. Alexis de Tocqueville expounds on it at length, under a header itself titled “Tyranny of the Majority”:
“There are men who are not afraid to say that, in objects that concern only itself, a people could not go entirely beyond the limits of justice and reason, and that we should not be afraid, therefore, to give all power to the majority that represents a people. But that is the language of a slave.
So what is a majority taken as a whole, if not an individual who has opinions and, most often, interests contrary to another individual called the minority. Now, if you admit that an individual vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why would you not admit the same thing for the majority?” (5)
The thread of discussion surrounding majority tyranny has continued unabated to this day, at the hands of writers such as John Stuart Mill, Herbert Marcuse, and countless others. We could spend all day citing them, but for now we will leave this topic behind, moving on to discuss the second main objection:
2. Direct Democracy is Not Scalable to Large Populations
Another common argument against direct democracy revolves around the idea that it does not scale to large empires, like the modern United States.
“It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.” (6)
Thus writes James Madison. In fact, he believed that a large national territory — though logistically problematic for direct democracy — would actually help lower the risk of majority tyranny, preventing any one faction from gaining too much power.
Aristotle also talks about the logistical problems for various styles of democracy. Speaking about democracies with large agricultural populations, he writes:
“Being poor, they have no leisure, and therefore do not often attend the assembly, and not having the necessaries of life they are always at work, and do not covet the property of others. Indeed, they find their employment pleasanter than the cares of government or office where no great gains can be made out of them, for the many are more desirous of gain than of honor […] Moreover, they have the power of electing the magistrates and calling them to account; their ambition, if they have any, is thus satisfied; and in some democracies, although they do not all share in the appointment of offices, except through representatives elected in turn out of the whole people, as at Mantinea […] Hence it is both expedient and customary in the aforementioned type of democracy that all should elect to offices, and conduct scrutinies, and sit in the law-courts, but that the great offices should be filled up by election and from persons having a qualification”. (7)
Aristotle believed this sort of representative democracy was the best one of all, because he believed it would leave society’s best educated, most moral and well-bred in charge while the rest of the population tended to their own business (more on this in a moment). Later on, he even speaks about the sheer impracticality of bringing rural countrymen to distant urban areas for the assembly.
Likewise, it’s obvious that there are severe logistical problems with the idea of sending every American to Washington, D.C. to decide on every conceivable law, budget or issue. But is that the only way to conceptualize a direct democracy? Or are there other forms it could take?
3. The People Are Not Intelligent Enough to Make Good Decisions
The last common objection we’ll examine today is the idea that the masses are not educated or intelligent enough to make the kinds of decisions required in government. This was a common opinion among the Federalists of America’s founding.
Governeur Morris, for example, at the July 1787 Convention, remarks:
“Every man of observation had seen in the democratic branches of the state legislatures, precipitation — in Congress, changeableness — in every department, excesses against personal liberty, private property, and personal safety. What qualities are necessary to constitute a check in this case? Abilities and virtue are equally necessary in both branches.” (8)
Morris, the author of the Constitution, was a Federalist and aristocrat. While an advocate of individual liberty and opponent of slavery, he distrusted democracy greatly. In a 1774 letter to John Penn, he called the masses “sheep” and “reptiles” who were just beginning “to think and reason”. He expressed fears that America would come under the “domination of a riotous mob”. (9)
Hamilton, likewise, distrusted the capability of the public to govern. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Yates records him as saying:
“All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.” (10)
Likewise, John Stuart Mill, the influential classical liberalist, writes,
“No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few. The initiation of all wise or noble things comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual.” (11)
But even as far back as Plato, under the Athenian democracy, philosophers cast doubt on the idea that less-educated people could govern. Plato uses the analogy of a ship to discuss why he believes the well-trained and cultivated of society, or “philosopher kings”, should rule:
“The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering — every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary […] but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not — the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.” (12)
Part II Preview — Digging in to Old Philosophies
These are certainly convincing arguments against direct democracy. But it’s important to note that these claims were all put forth, in one way or another, by political philosophers. Philosophy is, of course, an important tool — and it’s one I plan to use in many of my forthcoming articles. Philosophizing allows us to explore possibilities and alternatives to the narrative realities we experience — to imagine what lies beyond the schematics we normally take for granted.
But not every convincing philosophical argument is backed up by facts and reality; moreover, it’s important to remember that, even if a philosophy appears to be grounded in experience, there may still be scenarios that lie outside its domain. Therefore, it’s important to question philosophical arguments — even ancient and particularly strong ones — to see if they are backed up by fact, or to compare them to possible alternatives.
For this reason, I will make the following inquiries:
Could these philosophers be wrong?
Could direct democracy, in fact, be feasible under some circumstances?
If so, under what circumstances could it be feasible?
Is there real-world, or scientific evidence, for or against the feasibility of direct democracy?
Does this evidence (or lack thereof) apply to some scenarios, and not to others?
I aim to eventually examine (though it must wait for Part II of this article) the empirical evidence both for and against the claims made by these philosophers. There is no doubt (again, as I will show later) that tyranny of the majority is a real concept, a phenomenon which has been demonstrated to exist, and which has been witnessed in the real world. I am not questioning that fact.
Rather, what I want to call into question is this idea that tyranny of the majority is inevitable, a phenomenon which makes direct democracy unfeasible under all circumstances. Furthermore, I want to call into question, more generally, the truth of the other main objections to direct democracy. Is it actually impossible (particularly in the face of new technological developments) to scale a direct democracy over a large empire? Does putting decision-making in the hands of the uneducated masses actually result in worse decision-making? And even if it does, are there ethical and philosophical problems with trying to limit decision-making power to an “educated” few?
For now, I’d like to leave these questions dangling in the back of your mind, so they can begin to percolate and simmer. We will come back to the question of direct democracy in Part II. But first, I’d like to pull back the zoom to look at government in general. What are the different types of governments that exist, and what are the origins of the nationstate? These are the questions we’re going to cover in the next couple of installments.
For more information, check out Janet Biehl’s talk on the history of Rojava here.
Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Available at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.html
Ginsberg, Benjamin, Lowi, Theodore J. and Weir, Margaret (2011). We the People: An Introduction to American Politics. Shorter 8th ed. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
Madison, James (1787). The Federalist №10. Courtesy of the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library. Available at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp
Adams, John (1797). A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Against the Attack of M. Turgot in His Letter to D. Price, Dated the Twenty-Second Day of March, 1778. Third ed. Printed by William Young for William Cobbett, Philadelphia. Preserved in the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley. Available at https://ia800700.us.archive.org/17/items/defenceofconstit03adamrich/defenceofconstit03adamrich.pdf
de Tocqueville, Alexis (2012). Democracy in America. English Edition. (Eduardo Nolla, Ed. and James T. Schleifer, Trans.). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. (Original work published 1835). Available at https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2735
Madison, James (1787). The Federalist №14. Available at
Elliot, Jonathan (1787). The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Vol. 5. Available at https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=lled&fileName=005/lled005.db&recNum=291&itemLink=D?hlaw:21:./temp/~ammem_Hhyx::%230050292&linkText=1
Morris, Gouverneur (1774). Governeur Morris to John Penn. In Kurland, Philip B. and Lerner, Ralph (Ed.), The Founders’ Constitution (Web edition, 2000). Available at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s8.html
Yates, Robert (1787). In Farrand, Max (Ed.), The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (Vol. 1). Available at https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llfr&fileName=001/llfr001.db&recNum=328&itemLink=D?hlaw:44:./temp/~ammem_Hhyx::%230010329&linkText=1
Mill, John Stuart (2001). On Liberty. Batoche Books: Kitchener. (Original work published 1859). Available at https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/mill/liberty.pdf
Plato. Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Available at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html