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Direct democracy relies on historical knowledge

by Dr phil René Roca, Forschungsinstitut direkte Demokratie*

During the last two hundred years citizens in Switzerland have developed a model of democracy that is globally unique. Direct democracy is an integral part of political culture and the underpinning of economic success. These facts should be reason enough to expect that the formation and development of direct democracy ought to be an important research topic within Swiss historiography. This, however, is not the case. Although in recent years the study of direct democracy in Switzerland has been stimulated by a number of detailed studies many research fields lie fallow.

Paradigm shift

What is the reason for this malaise? Undoubtedly, it has something to do with the paradigm shift among historians in the 1970s and 1980s. Some historians vigorously pursued the project of a “histoire totale”, i.e. they attempted to adopt a multiperspectival approach to history and focus their attention especially on economic history, social history and the history of mentality. Unfortunately, the opening-up of the discipline propelled by this trend often had the opposite effect, namely an ideological narrowing. Today, this trend is still being nurtured and cultivated. Instead of taking political and intellectual history into consideration people tend to embark upon postmodernist theories that do not yield any gains in insight. In the process they either make a mockery of direct democracy or they embrace outmoded ways of thinking because there are no serious research projects. It is highly problematic that currently diverse academic chairs of history are held by prestigious proponents of the suggested paradigm shift who are blocking any attempts to lead historio-
graphy out of this impasse. An actual chair for Swiss history does no longer exist. But direct democracy is especially in need of historical knowledge to raise an awareness of its importance and to develop it further.

The theory of direct democracy

The development of direct democracy in nineteenth-century Switzerland varied widely, but it always developed from the bottom up, i.e. from the political communes  to the cantonal and national levels. Crucial as theoretical elements in this process were the cooperative principle, Christian as well as modern natural law and the idea of popular sovereignty.
As the name of the Swiss confederacy – “Eidgenossenschaft” – already  suggests the cooperative principle (Genossenschaftsprinzip) in Switzerland has a long-standing tradition. It meant inter alia a community-shaping and integrating force without which Switzerland as a “Willensnation” (a nation united by the will of its people) could not have come into existence.
In the sixteenth century Christian natural law was provided with a personalist foundation by the Spanish School of Salamanca. It emphasised the inherent equality and natural freedom of human beings as well as their community-forming social nature. On that basis the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century developed modern natural law theory which was intensely debated also in Switzerland (see, for instance, the Swiss-French natural law school, the so-called “école romande du droit naturel”).
The Genevan writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described the idea of a natural law-based popular sovereignty in his fundamental work “Social Contract”. His reflections were essential for the emergence of direct democratic instruments.
Building on this theoretical foundation rural popular movements established the first direct democratic popular rights in Switzerland in the first half of the nineteenth century. They  managed to enforce them even in the face of intense resistance in some cases mainly by the Liberals. This can be illustrated by diverse cantonal examples.

The case of Basel-Landschaft

Beginning in 1830 in Basel-Landschaft the development of democracy was vigorously pursued by liberal circles. As a small ruling elite liberals subscribed to the principle of representation. Popular sovereignty should be limited to the election of the legislature and should not be made more specific by further civic rights of the citizens. Soon an opposition against this concept emerged among the rural population, the so-called “Bewegungsleute”. These were radical free-thinkers (“Freisinnige”) who in line with their Jacobin and early socialist convictions advocated further-reaching civic rights for the citizens. In particular, they campaigned for a “legislative veto”, an early form of today’s optional or facultative referendum. In the course of their separation from Basel Stadt the activists of the democratic movement achieved their first success. In 1832 for the first time the newly created Canton of Basel-Landschaft was able to adopt its own constitution in which the “legislative veto” was established. Initial political experiences were positive. Over the next few decades, as in other cantons, direct democracy was systematically developed and refined. Thus the legislative veto was transformed and expanded into a mandatory referendum. Very much in the spirit of Rousseau the population was now authorised to decide on every single law.

The case of Lucerne

In the canton of Lucerne a constitution was first adopted by a referendum (a popular vote expressed at the ballot box) in 1831. The 1831 constitution was mainly a product of liberal circles and because of its democratic character it marked a major advancement at the time. Democracy, however, was still a representative one, i.e. apart from elections there was no opportunity for active popular participation in politics. The Catholic conservatives, also called “ländliche Demokraten” (Rural Democrats), had a different vision of popular sovereignty. They wanted to secure a much greater share in decision-making for the people. To achieve this end, a rural popular movement evolved. In 1841 after a very intense political debate, the “Rural Democrats” pressed for a total revision of the constitution. The predominantly Catholic “Siebzehnerkommission” (commission of seventeen) charged with drafting a new constitution explained in its commentary on the first paragraph of the constitution:
“It is declared that a free state is not simply a representative democracy, but a democracy. In a democratic government the popular will – the  true public opinion bowing only before God, religion and justice – is  the supreme law whereas in a representative democracy the popular will is assigned to its deputies and all that remains for the people is a mere shadow of true sovereignty.”
That same year, the people of Lucerne accepted the constitution by a referendum. The new constitution marked a milestone in the further development of direct democracy. The crucial factor was the introduction of popular rights such as the citizen’s initiative for a total or partial revision of the constitution, the obligatory constitutional referendum and the legislative veto. Nowhere else in Switzerland did the population have that much political power. Although some of the achievements were canceled out again by the “Sonderbund” war that began a couple of years later the implementation of direct democracy on a cantonal level could no longer be delayed.

Correcting the liberal view of history

Oskar Vasella, a Swiss Catholic historian largely ignored by his expert colleagues correctly wrote in his essay “Zur historischen Würdigung des Sonderbunds” (An historical appraisal of the Sonderbund) that “greater freedom of historical thinking” was required especially in an appraisal of catholic conservatism in order to achieve a more accurate and faithful account of the early history of the founding of the federal state. The same applies for the significance of early socialism. Most of the early socialists were federalists who were committed to a de-centralised political system and advocated the extension of popular political rights. The subsequently emerging leftist movement adapted for the most part the centralist-oriented marxist ideology whose view of man was rather oriented towards class struggle than based on natural law.
The catholic conservatives and the early socialists were among the political losers in Switzerland. But they have shaped the history of the Swiss confederation just as much as the liberals. Those who won the “Sonderbund” war had to go through a lengthy learning process until they could accept direct democracy and cast off their self-conceit and arrogance towards “the populace”. Switzerland would not have become a federal and direct democratic state if the liberal, anticlerical and in some cases also centralist elements had kept the upper hand without resistance. Today’s historiography shaped by the victorious liberals urgently needs to be corrected.     •
*    The author is a postgraduate historian with a doctorate, grammar school teacher and head of the “Forschungsinstitut direkte Demokratie”
(www.fidd.ch)