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What Is Direct Democracy: Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons

Direct Democracy: Type, definition, pros & cons

What does direct democracy mean, and how does it differ from indirect democracy? Here’s a look at what’s good and bad about “pure democracy” and whether it could still work today.

There’s a good chance you live under some form of democracy. Nearly all Indians do, and everyone living within the Indians lives in a democracy—a country’s institutions must guarantee democracy and the rule of law, among other things, in order to ensure liberty of citizens.

The form of democracy Indian citizens live under is representative democracy, where we cast votes for politicians who in turn vote on what should become law. But there’s another, older form of democracy that some consider more genuine and pure. It’s called direct democracy.

Direct democracy means that people vote on policies and laws themselves, instead of electing politicians to do it on their behalf. This is why it’s sometimes referred to as “pure democracy.” It could take different forms, from a system where all executive and legislative decisions are taken by direct vote of the people, or where only certain policies or legislative acts are voted on by the people.

Direct Democracy: It means that people vote on policies and laws themselves, instead of electing politicians to do it on their behalf.
Direct Democracy; Getty image

The latter system has been the most common form of direct democracy throughout modern history, and it is considered semi-direct democracy. This is a hybrid form of governing that combines that tenets of direct democracy and representative democracy. The people choose representatives to administer day-to-day governance. They keep the power to directly vote on important issues through binding referendum, popular initiative, revocation of mandate, and public consultations.

How does a it differ from an indirect democracy?

As mentioned above, direct democracy is when the people vote directly on laws or other policy initiatives. Indirect democracy is when the people election representatives to make those same votes on their behalf.

What forms does direct democracy have?

We’ve already touched on semi-direct democracy, which can be viewed as a form of direct democracy, or a separate system in itself. Looking specifically at direct democracy, the two primary forms are participatory democracy and deliberative democracy.

Participatory democracy is model of democracy in which citizens have the power to make political decisions directly through their vote. And the emphasis of participatory democracy is that action—the direct participation of citizens, through voting, in determining outcomes of legislative or policy proposals.

Deliberative democracy, a form of direct democracy similar yet distinct, prioritizes debate and deliberation in decision-making. Laws gain legitimacy and force not solely from majority support but from comprehensive discussions, considering all viewpoints and weighing pros and cons.

A good way to think of the difference between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy is the process. In the former, people go to the polls and vote. In a deliberative process, people would gather in an assembly of sorts, debate and discuss the issues to be voted on, and then reach a consensus decision.


The origin of modern democracy, at least as we commonly understand it, is the direct democratic system of Athens around 600 BCE. In this Athenian democracy, citizens didn’t choose representatives to vote on legislation on their behalf but instead voted on proposals and initiatives themselves.

Today, however, there are few, if any, true direct-democracy states. Switzerland prides itself on its system of direct democracy—the government even has a webpage to tout it—but in truth the Swiss system, at federal level, is a semi-direct democracy. Politicians are elected to handle the daily governance of the nation and make many decision on behalf of the people. Still, citizens do retain a high degree of democratic power. They can propose changes to the constitution or ask for a referendum to be held on any law proposed by the federal government or any cantonal parliament or other legislative body.

In the United States, many individual states and municipalities retain some direct democracy. In New England, for example, so-called town halls are assemblies with the members of local towns gather for deliberative, direct democratic processes to decide local laws and regulations. And in many countries, such as the United Kingdom and roughly a dozen EU states, national referendums still exist, under which citizens can vote directly on a legislative proposal, say to allow abortion or to leave the European Union.

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Direct democracy: what are the pros and cons?

Direct democracy, or “pure democracy,” is often seen as the truest form of democracy. The people choose the laws they live under, cutting out the “middlemen” to vote on their behalf. This way inherently portrays it as more virtuous than representative democracy. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its drawbacks. So what are the main pros and cons?



Direct democracy is surely the most transparent form of democracy. Public discussions and debates determine the outcome and scope of legislation; no “backroom deals” are made in the decision-making process. And it’s the people who decide whether a proposal becomes law, and thus they bear full responsibility for the outcome.


Speaking of responsibility, it ensures that there is no doubt about who is accountable for the successes or failures of a countries laws or policies. Moreover, the government cannot claim to be unaware of the will of the people, and partisan lobbying and other interference in the legislative process is minimal or non-existent.


It encourages citizens to communicate and cooperate with one another, not only to consider current legislation, but also to craft legislation that best serves the most people. Thus has the best chance of winning majority support. When decision-makers assure people that they will consider their voice in the process, individuals are far more likely to participate and cooperate with fellow citizens.



Simply put, there are more people now than there were when direct democratic systems existed. Many, many more. Consider the United States, with its some 350 million people. Every policy initiative or legislative proposal would never get done if they all had to vote on each one. It simply would not be an efficient system, and thus it could actually weaken the effectiveness of the government.


We are busy people. We have jobs to do, families to care for, and sports teams to form unhealthy obsessions over. If every decision requires us to weigh in, we would eventually lose interest or simply be unable to keep up with such a demand.


Important decisions often create tension between people with opposing views. The more important the decision, the more tension. The more decisions, the more tension. Trying to implement direct democracy today could lead to even more acrimonious societies, where people are angrier and, perhaps, more violent.

In many ways, direct democracy deserves its title as the purest form of democracy. But does that mean it’s the best? There are many reasons why we should be hesitant to want to live in a true direct democracy. Despite ensuring that our individual opinion will matter and be considered in the final outcome. Certainly, representative democracy came about because it does some things better than direct democracy. Maintaining our representative democracies to ensure they function as intended is another matter altogether.

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