Theses Doctoral

Direct Democracy - Institutional Origins, Initiative Usage, and Policy Consequences

Leemann, Lucas

This dissertation consist of three research papers on direct democracy. Each paper addresses a fundamental question about direct democracy. All three questions have a specific role in a larger research agenda on direct democratic institutions.
To out rule any confusion up front I need to define direct democratic institutions. I refer to direct democratic institutions if they can be launched or triggered by citizens and political parties against the will of the executive and the legislature or if they are constitutionally required. The second qualification is that the outcome of the process or mechanism has to be binding. Direct democracy, according to this definition, exists on a national level in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Egypt, Ireland, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, USA (to change the constitution). In Italy, Liberia, Liechtenstein, the Philippines, and Switzerland the people can challenge government policies. Finally, in the US states, Switzerland, Swiss cantons, and also most German Länder there is a right to propose new laws (Hug, 2004).
The purpose of limiting direct democracy to the most powerful subset of such institutions - the ones which can originate from the people and are binding for the government - provides us with specific enough set of institutions such that one can make meaningful statements about them. Direct democracy can be many things; its significant effects, variously for good or ill, have been widely acknowledged (Broder, 2000; Matsusaka, 1995). Do direct democratic institutions inevitably lead to inability of reform (as in California) or do direct democratic institutions constrain political elites and make them more responsive to the electorate (Hug, 2003)? These are the two extreme positions on whether direct democratic institutions are beneficial or disadvantageous. But a normative claim has to be rooted in a detailed understanding of how these institutions work. To that end, I ask three research questions which shed light on the direct democratic institutions within modern representative polities.
The first paper asks why direct democratic institutions are introduced and extended. Why should politicians in power change the institutional setting in a unfavorable way for themselves? The motivation for this paper is that many scholars regard Switzerland as a peculiar and special case for direct democracy. There is an underlying understanding that there is a special cultural and historical affinity to direct democracy. This paper shows that most regions and cantons did not have direct democratic institutions two hundred years ago. The introduction and extension of direct democracy can be understood as a consequence of partisan motivations to restrict power of the party in government.
Are direct democratic institutions the people's means of keeping politicians on a leash? The second paper shows how organized political groups exploit direct democratic institutions. The paper shows that the degree of partisan competition is the main driver of initiative frequency. This paper explains and illustrates how partisan competition is altered by the presence of direct democratic institutions. Finally, the results help to understand why initiatives often target social issues and moral value questions rather than redistribution issues.
Finally, the third paper asks under which circumstances direct democratic institutions yield better policies for the median voter. Is the median voter always better off with direct democracy? The paper shows that the voter is usually not worse off but that the benefit from having direct democratic institutions depends on the specific cleavage structure in a country.
The main relationship and recurrent theme of this dissertation is the cleavage structure and how that interacts with direct democracy. The first paper shows that the more cleavages are actively exploited the more likely introduction and extension of direct democracy becomes. The second paper shows that the cross-cutting cleavages yield the issues which will be exploited by parties in their quest to gain larger support in the next elections. The final paper shows that direct democracy will yield its largest effect when a polity has two cleavages which are cross-cutting and only one of them is relevant for the elections.
What do we learn from these three papers? All three papers in this dissertation center around the cleavage structure. Whether the specific cleavage constellation proliferates direct democracy, or a new cross-cutting cleavage creates the incentives for parties to use direct democracy, or, finally, whether it is predicting when direct democracy will benefit the median voter most. Since the origins, the usage, but also the effects are contingent on the conflict structure within a society it is hard to study direct democracy in a comparative manner. The study of direct democracy has remained a somewhat neglected endeavor and has been mostly delegated to scholars of US state politics or Swiss politics (see Altman, 2011, for an exception). Part of the reason for this may be that it is hard to understand how direct democracy works because those very mechanics depend on the underlying conflict structure in a society.
I believe that the study of direct democracy is central because it strikes at the core of democracy. It is a set of institutions which has the potential to create a more responsive government and to democratize democratic societies even further. At the same time, this comes with costs. The main aspect being that the people's will may very well violate basic liberal rights. Another critique which is often voiced doubts the ability of ordinary citizens to make policy decisions. However, I have never been too impressed in normative discussion when the people's ability to make rational choices was questioned. I do not fully disagree and I do think that people may make mistakes. But after all, this argument was used against general suffrage and proportional representation, two institutions which we nowadays believe to be fundamental democratic principles.
Given the potential of these institutions, intensive study of them is warranted. But the study of direct democracy will only make a leap forward once we surpass the country studies and move on to a truly comparative analysis. Understanding the conditionality of effects and hence under- standing how these institutions exert differential effects depending on the societal and institutional environment they exist within is the next big step. This dissertation, hence, can be regarded as a product of the old times - but my aspiration is to also contribute to a newer wave of literature and to work towards the goal of a truly comparative study of direct democracy.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Lax, Jeffrey R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 15, 2014