Historical research and direct democracy

by Dr phil René Roca, Research Institute for Direct Democracy

Over the last two centuries, the citizens of Switzerland have been developing democracy into a model unique in the world. Direct democracy is an essential component of the political culture and the decisive foundation for the country’s economic success. It is therefore astonishing that the emergence and development of direct democracy was not a key research topic in historical studies for a long time.  In order to fill the research gaps, the author founded the scientific “Research Institute for Direct Democracy” in 2013.1
Below is an overview as a short summary of the research done so far. Afterwards, the research results will be deepened in a loose sequence on the basis of individual topics.

The principle of Cooperatives and natural law as a basis

With its direct democracy, Switzerland developed a model even before the founding of the federal state in 1848, which took very different forms in the further course of the 19th century. This always proceeded “from bottom to top”, i.e. building on the municipalities, through the respective cantonal to the federal level. The principle of cooperatives and natural law played a central role in this process.
    “Natural law” means that people think about the supertemporal norms for living together, about moral behaviour (question of values) and about the forming of the political and legal order. Among other things, natural law was put into practice in Switzerland with the cooperative principles and its three “selves”, namely self-help, self-determination and self-responsibility. This principle involved an integrating force, without which a nation of will, Switzerland, based on freedom and equality, could not have been created. So, there is no trace of “backwardness”, as historians have repeatedly claimed. Although the economic dynamism in the Confederation began late, it was based on a solid human foundation. Before 1848, Switzerland was mainly rural and agricultural, but from the end of the 18th century to 1848 it experienced its first industrial boost. However, this boom only affected certain regions of the country and was based on export-oriented light industries, i.e. cotton spinning and weaving, silk weaving, and watchmaking. In terms of the school system, Switzerland was far ahead of most European countries, as the current evaluations of the so-called Stapfer-Enquête2 show. In the first half of the 19th century, Switzerland was a real “stronghold of education”, with almost all children attending school. Unfortunately, today such relevant research results are barely taken note of.

Basel District (Baselland) and its “movement people” (Bewegungsleute)

In Basel District (Baselland), liberal circles enforced democratic development from 1830 onwards. As a small liberal ruling class, they represented the principle of representation. The sovereignty of the people was to be confined in the choice of the legislature, which was limited by a census, and not be put in concrete terms by further popular rights. An opposition quickly formed from the rural population, the so-called “movement people” (Bewegungsleute). These were radically thinking liberal-democratic people, some of whom developed in an early Jacobinian-socialist direction and stood up for further popular rights. In the course of the separation from Basel the “movement people” soon attained their first success. In 1832, Basel District adopted its first independent constitution, in which it enshrined the legal veto, a preform of today’s “optional referendum”. Basel District was thus the second canton after St. Gallen to introduce this constitutional right. The first political experiences were good, and direct democracy was then gradually improved.

Lucerne and its “rural democrats”

The Canton of Lucerne first adopted a constitution by referendum in 1831. The 31st Constitution was primarily a product of liberal circles and was a major step forward thanks to its democratic character. However, democracy was representative, i.e. apart from restricted elections (census), the population had no opportunity to actively participate in policy. For the Liberals this was the “most accomplished state system”.
    The Catholic-Conservatives, also called “rural democrats”, had a different idea of popular sovereignty. They wanted to give the people greater political participation. To achieve this, a rural popular movement was formed. In 1841, after an intensive political debate, the “rural democrats” pushed for a total revision of the constitution which finally received a large majority in the (political) vote. Decisive was the introduction of people’s rights, including the legal veto, for many “the most important new institution”, which was further developed in the following years.

Complementing the liberal view of history

After the founding of the Federal State in 1848, the Liberals paved the way for the economic development in Switzerland and thus made the second industrialisation possible (including railway construction). However, they also cultivated a tendency towards aristocratisation and favoured a utilitarian principle that produced social inequality and injustice. The “movement people” and the “rural democrats” were among the political losers in 1848. However, they shaped Swiss history before and after 1848 just as much as the liberals. The liberal victors of the “Sonderbund war” (Sonderbundskrieg) of 1847 had to go through a long learning process before they accepted direct democracy and gave up their conceit towards “ordinary people”. Switzerland would not be a federalist and direct-democratic state system, nor would it possess today’s economic success model, if the liberal, anti-clerical and in part also centralist elements had prevailed without resistance.       •


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