Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Is Swiss Democracy Exportable?

From: Estananto <estananto@y...>
Date: Wed Apr 21, 2004 7:23 am
Subject: Is Swiss Democracy Exportable?

Is Swiss Democracy Exportable?

Tages Anzeiger (Zurich, Switzerland)

Markus Somm

August 29, 2002

Translated by Sara Kupfer


Direct Democracy: An American journalist has dealt
with Switzerland. Switzerland’s system of direct
democracy fascinates him so much that he concludes
that the United States should imitate it.

Is Swiss democracy exportable?

It is said that direct democracy only works in a small
country like Switzerland. An American author thinks
differently: also the United States could benefit from
studying the Swiss model.

By Markus Somm

It rarely occurs that an American author deals with
Switzerland – and if so, the end result often is more
mythological than informative. Foreigners often depict
the country in such vague terms that natives are
unable to recognize anything new. This fall, a book
will be published in the United States that is free
from such shortcomings and instead presents a
surprisingly accurate portrait of Switzerland. The
title of the book is Direct Democracy in Switzerland,
and Gregory Fossedal is the name of the author. A
former journalist for the Wall Street Journal, he now
heads a new think tank in Washington that seeks, among
other things, to advocate direct democracy in the
United States. It is thus not surprising that Fossedal
is interested in Switzerland considering that no other
country in the world has so thoroughly democratized
its political system on the national level. The United
States is the only other country where similar
democratic reforms have been institutionalized, but
only in a number of single states, not in Washington

The Swiss Way.

After careful research in Switzerland, Fossedal does
not conclude that direct democracy in Switzerland is a
political aberration. On the contrary. The author is
impressed and increasingly convinced that the U.S.
urgently needs to imitate the Swiss experiment. Only
this way can American citizens’ growing
dissatisfaction with politics be contained. Unlike
former Swiss Ambassador to the United States Alfred
Defago, who told Fossedal that direct democracy can
only be practiced in Switzerland, Fossedal believes
that the system is exportable.

Despite this ideological bias, the author takes a
serious effort to understand in detail what so much
fascinates him. This is why Fossedal’s book also makes
for a rewarding read for the Swiss reading public.
Like many American publicists, Fossedal writes with
wit, fluency, and without sounding intimidating. It is
a pleasure to follow the foreign ethnologist on his
journey through Switzerland. For example, he describes
the happenings in the House of Parliament: the
building, which the average Swiss enters with a
mixture of pride and shy reverence, looks for the
American more like a communal city council. To his own
surprise, Fossedal observes that security checks
obviously do not seem to be necessary (the visit
occurred before the deadly shooting in Zug – in the
meantime, this has changed). And he is bemused by the
fact that many members of parliament hang out in the
hallways in a sweater rather than a suit. The book is
full of such anecdotes. Fossedal brilliantly combines
reportage and analysis, statistics and history,
historical retrospectives and predictions for the
future. Quite obviously, behind the politically minded
researcher hides a former journalist. At first glance,
it seems that Fossedal is interested in almost
everything that can be observed in Switzerland;
however, his narrative always find back to the theme
of direct democracy. Looking at different areas of
Swiss politics, he investigates the way in which this
rare system plays itself out and compares it with the
experiences of other countries, especially the United
States. Even Swiss citizens thus can gain entirely new
insights into their country.

An example is Fossedal’s treatment of taxation policy:
In a convincing and well-informed manner, the author
explains his American readership why Switzerland still
has low fiscal quotas – despite frequent citizen
complaints, they have remained low compared to other
countries. Taxes continue to be moderate because Swiss
voters have to sanction almost every tax raise at the
polls. In all other democracies, political elites can
negotiate tax raises among themselves – which has the
tendency of leading to higher taxation. Decisions to
raise taxes always are controversial, and every
lobbyist of the country gathers in Washington to put
pressure on representatives during tax debates. In the
end, however, it is politicians who decide whether
they want to grant more money to the government on
which they themselves depend.

Perverse Effects

In the United States, Fossedal believes, the final
decision-making power of politicians has perverse
effects: Because Americans (like the Swiss)
traditionally are tax-weary, politicians of both
parties try to make emotional appeals to voters.
Depending on the interests presented by a particular
party, the concerns of one interest group are
denounced as extravagant while the needs of another
group are presented as indispensable. Nobody is
interested in details, voters are hardly being
informed and instead are being charged with emotions
because citizens do not have the power to decide the
outcome of the debate themselves. In short: instead of
having to explain the need for a tax raise or tax cut
to their citizens, as Swiss politicians have to if
they want to get reelected, American politicians
strategically appeal to a diffuse popular dislike of
government. In the end, however, citizens are left
feeling deceived, Fossedal finds. In Switzerland, by
contrast, he was impressed by the degree in which even
moderately educated people are knowledgeable about tax
issues. And nobody complained. Although every Swiss
believes that they are paying too many taxes, they
would never want to trade with the Germans or the
Americans. Fossedal carefully elucidates how direct
democracy leads to decisions that are much better
accepted and understood by individual citizens than it
is the case in representational democracies. Besides,
he refutes one of the most stubborn prejudices about
direct democracies: that citizens tend to give in to
populist demagogues and make irrational decisions,
such as starving their own government. If necessary,
even the Swiss have voted for tax increases – it just
costs the politician more to convince citizens. By no
means does this process undermine the quality of a
political decision – on the contrary.

Another example that critics have often used to
demonstrate the dangers of the system of direct
democracy is the highly contentious issue of
immigration policy. It is sometimes said that the
majority oppresses the minority with the ballot. This
fear is not entirely misplaced. Switzerland, however,
may have the advantage of not being a genuine nation
state with an overwhelming majority. Fossedal thus
again succeeds in elucidating another important effect
that the system of direct democracy has produced in
Switzerland. Although in the past thirty years, the
Swiss have voted on numerous initiatives seeking to
limit the number of immigrants, reason has always
prevailed – motivated either by economic or
humanitarian considerations. The Swiss people always
ended up rejecting radical measure in immigration
policy; hence, the fear of the populists remains
largely unfounded. Above all, however, Fossedal
highlights that the right to introduce initiatives
gives those people who feel threatened by immigrants a
fair chance. In contrast to many other European
countries, nobody in Switzerland can complain about
not having enough of a say in politics.

Unreasonable Democracy

Will American citizens and politicians come to share
Fossedal’s enthusiasm for the Swiss way of direct
democracy anytime soon? Hardly so. At this moment,
promoters of direct democracy are having quite a hard
time. Both major political parties only have a
moderate interest in changing the system. Why should
the elites take away their own power? In the past
years, skepticism about direct democracy has become
particularly widespread in left-liberal circles –
especially in California, which together with Oregon
resembles the Swiss model the most. Both popular
initiative and the referendum are practiced in the
Golden State. Although the fight for more popular
involvement in the political decision making process
originated with the Left shortly before World War I,
it is the Right that since the 1970s has set out to
use the popular initiative to upset the government.

This, at least, is the way the American journalist
Peter Schrag sees it, who a couple of years ago wrote
a shocking account of the state of democracy in
California. With the passing of the famous proposition
13 in 1978, the Tax Revolt movement, which was made up
of people who felt that the tax burden has reached a
breaking point, achieved an important political
victory. The popular initiative, which targeted the
estate tax, was accepted by a large majority of
citizens. It had consequences: For one, the tax rebels
paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy to the
White House. For another, Schrag believes, it deprived
the state of California of important resources in the
long term. Schrag attributes the decline of
Californian public schools and infrastructure to this

Thus, is direct democracy harmful after all? Whatever
seems to hold true for California certainly doesn’t
apply to Switzerland – as most Swiss citizens will
attest to . This is not because the Swiss are
politically more mature but because the system works,
Fossedal convincingly shows. Californian democracy
distinguishes itself from the Swiss system in
important respects (see below). Seen this way, the
Swiss can only hope that Fossedal’s book is also being
red in California and not only in Switzerland.

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