Extreme democracy is not an impossible dream if you copy Switzerland, not California

St. Francis Yacht Club, CB

Beside the bay, beneath the trees, the St. Francis Yacht Club at dusk, after a symposium on direct democracy

Techno-optimists are sure that our egalitarian internet that brought you to this blog will flatten power structures in organisations, both online and offline, and usher in an age of extreme democracy. Cynics say that they are wrong. Whisper to them tentatively about, for instance, reorganising the media to make readers and viewers part-owners and managers, and they will roar at you, “Ridiculous! Disastrous! It could never work!’

You must then reply in calming tones, ‘True, if you do it like California, but not if you copy Switzerland.’

On the 10th of October, Californians will commemorate – note that I do not say, celebrate– the hundredth birthday of direct democracy in their state. They learnt how to use the tools for this system run on referendums and citizens’ initiatives from watching the Swiss. How did the midget Alpine republic invent its style of government? Today’s peaceable Switzerland came together as a federation of bolshie and aggressively independent tribes united by their determination to resist being conquered by huge and powerful neighbouring countries.

Switzerland– not a member of the European Union, which partly explains its soaring currency and almost indecently successful economy – is the anti-melting pot. In an article I wrote for Prospect last February, I suggested that it could replace America as the model for how to run culturally diverse societies. Its system of government goes to extraordinary lengths to protect the distinctiveness of its many radically different cultures and shield minorities from being bullied by majority opinions and beliefs.

This makes it a good model for old countries redesigning constitutions, new ‘emerging’ countries — and for groups and organisations being specially designed for the internet and treating all cultural traditions as equal.

But it has been a bad model for California– for which Californians have only themselves to blame, as Joe Mathews, born and bred in the state, and his co-author, Mark Paul, explain in their much-praised California Crackup (2010). Unless tales of incompetence heaped on ineptitude send you running for a prescription for antidepressants, you can also read a good analysis of why direct democracy has not served California well on The Economist site.

At the heart of the trouble is that Californians have been irresponsible and undisciplined, in using the levers of direct democracy. It is as if the Swiss gave them a demonstration of the etiquette for communal eating – showing them how to make sure everyone gets the same chances to dip their fondue forks into the cheese – and the Californians somehow ended up coated in gooey strands of Emmenthal, forking themselves in the foot. For years, Californians have found it impossible to agree on how they should tax themselves to run their government and, year after year, government employees go unpaid for weeks or months while they wait for one state budget crisis after another to be resolved.

Last Wednesday, the Swiss consulate inSan Francisco played generous host to a lunch and symposium – California Direct Democracy: the Next 100 Years – in the city’s most enviably situated private space, the St. Francis Yacht Club, so close to the water’s edge that it is almost floating.

After a brief welcoming speech by their consul, Julius Anderegg, the Swiss stayed tactfully in the background while their guests discussed how Californians might extract themselves from their mess. Not until after this event did the most enlightening apostle of Swiss democracy, Bruno Kaufmann, a citizen of both Switzerland and Sweden– two countries Americans inexplicably tend to confuse – say that California is the only place he has come across that needs less direct democracy. Asked for his opinion of the Californian implementation of the system, he said bluntly,

Your process is much more about enabling conflict, but not about solving conflict. You use it like a hammer, when what you need is a screwdriver.

Bruno Kaufmann

Bruno, who is forty-five, has dedicated his entire working life to being something of a Johnny Appleseed for collaborative democracy. He has written about it as a journalist, and from Sweden runs the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, which is in Germany (Marburg), as its first director. His career is a model of Buddha-like patience. He told me how at eighteen, acting from deep personal conviction, he wrote Switzerland’s first-ever proposal for abolishing its army. Though he and his fellow-campaigners lost the referendum on the question held in 1989, the 36 per cent of the population who voted ‘yes’ licensed criticism of the Swiss tradition of compulsory military service – strictly taboo, before. That eventually led to the army being shrunk from 600,000 to 100,000 troops.

Next spring, he will have to take a bow when a new European Citizens’ Initiative is handed to 500 million EU citizens – giving them the means to formally propose new laws, and the same right to do so as their parliament. He was the coordinator of the network that mobilised support for the idea. When I asked him how long it took him and his fellow campaigners to realise this particular dream, he said simply, ‘Twenty years.’

So what is the secret of the Swiss success with direct democracy?

Two things, he said:

  • A deeply ingrained preference for consensual and consultative over confrontational decision-making, and a commitment to making it work – even though it can be infuriatingly slow.
  • A willingness to lose cheerfully, when you are out-voted and do not get what you want. (Nothing bars you from trying again, later, and succeeding.)

One paradox about this culture of outstandingly collaborative behaviour is, of course, that the Swiss — collectively — are not joiners. Switzerland is a tiny, go-it-alone country. It obstinately resisted pressure to join the EU. It did not even join the United Nations until 2002 – becoming the world’ first country to do so as a result of a referendum, in which the winning side won by only a small margin.

I was thinking about this as I stared out of the meeting room’s glass walls. A brisk wind was frothing up waves in an undulating mosaic of blue, grey, and jade. There was something gloriously bizarre about being part of a group discussing schemes for cooperation and democracy with part of my mind hypnotised by the most thrilling figures in my field of vision – solitary windsurfers, battered by the elements pushing and tearing at them, … forcing them to bend and tilt … down, down, down … nearly capsizing, then thankfully upright again … all by themselves, helped by no one, and too consumed by the struggle to keep their balance to help anyone else.