Direct Democracy – Empowerment of Citizens or Instrument of the Elites?

Max Haller


Democracy is in deep crisis today: this is indicated by decreasing turnout at elections, media that blur the distinction between information, defamation and propaganda, and the hidden influence of business corporations through tax evasion and lobbyism (Barber 1994; Crouch 2004; Preiss/Brunner 2013; Merkel 2015). In this situation, direct democracy seems to offer a new way to strengthen citizens’ political participation. However, several recent referenda have shown that the former can be used by the elites as an instrument for advancing their ambitions to power, and legitimating specific (often problematic) political aims. This paper uses a theoretically informed historical-sociological approach with the intent of explaining elites’ attitudes toward democracy. I start from democratic elite theory, which argues that elites are indispensable for the management of large and complex societies, but that they will pursue their own interests if not checked by a strong opposition and civic action from below. Six concrete hypotheses are developed: Direct democracy increases in the course of realizing democratic systems; elites are much more sceptical concerning direct democracy than citizens; the use and implementation of referenda depend on the political system (distinguishing three types); and the dysfunctions of direct democracy are mainly due to its misuse by elites, while the outcomes of strong direct democracy are mostly positive. These hypotheses are tested by looking at applications of direct democracy (referenda) in totalitarian, authoritarian and elitist democratic systems in recent European history. The paper concludes with some considerations about the necessary measures for solving the problems of direct democracy as articulated by the elites.


direct democracy, elites, citizens, European integration, historical analysis

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ISSN: 2062-087X

DOI: 10.14267/issn.2062-087X