Does democracy make people happy?

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The more options people are given to participate politically, the happier they are, according to scientific research. So shouldn’t every country introduce Swiss-style direct democracy? Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen, professor of comparative politics at the University of Bern, shares her thoughts.

This content was published on March 10, 2017 - 11:00 Does direct democracy make people happy?

Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen: I think direct democracy has many positive aspects. But I’m rather sceptical about whether it can determine how happy someone is on a personal level.

Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen, professor of comparative politics at the University of Bern zvg

Scientifically, the findings are not really robust. We carried out further analysis of a 2000 happiness studyExternal link [into whether happiness prospers in a direct democratic system like Switzerland], to which you are probably referring. We found that if the aspect of satisfaction with democracy is included in the analysis, the positive effect of direct democracy on everyday happiness disappears. 

This also seems to make more sense. If we have a system of direct democracy and people believe it’s a good thing, it probably affects the way they perceive democracy. But it’s unlikely there’s any link to someone’s personal life, especially if we assume that politics generally plays a secondary role in most people’s lives. But when it comes to politics, are people happier when they have a greater say in decision-making?

I.S-S.: There is a small correlation – at least in Switzerland. But you can’t really generalise about the findings in Switzerland. If we were to abolish direct democracy in Switzerland, people would be unhappy as they would feel something was missing.

But if you look at it the other way round, you can’t assume that introducing direct democracy in a country would make people happier. You can see that for example with Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union. They held a referendum because they hoped it would have positive effects. But when you carry out one-off votes like that without such instruments being embedded in the political system, it leads to confusion. For example people didn’t really think about what would happen if Scotland voted differently from the rest of Britain. I think these things are really important. You can’t just start talking about a general ‘happiness effect’ of direct democracy. What are the arguments against direct democracy?

I.S-S.: One disadvantage is its openness to populism. You often see issues arising during voting campaigns that are not the ones being discussed. A completely different topic is also brought up and reference is made to a particular template. This is certainly a downside. If I could no longer take decisions on specific topics and could only elect individuals, frankly I would find that unsatisfactory. How can I trust politicians to actually represent my opinions?

I.S-S.: The question is, ‘do you have to trust them?’ One key element of democracy is that you can somehow control politicians. In Switzerland, the system is actually built on a general mistrust that the ‘people in Bern' [the government and parliament] do something and we [the voters] use people’s initiatives and referendums to make sure things turn out right.

But even in totally representative democratic systems you also have a degree of control – and perhaps even tougher measures. Transparency and accountability are much clearer in a representative political model. If you elect a government in a representative democracy like Germany and it pursues a policy that you don’t like, then you can punish the government directly by not voting for them in the future. In Switzerland [where the cabinet comprises seven members from various parties] it’s sometimes quite hard to know who is responsible. This has a negative impact on the possibilities you have to punish politicians and to express your lack of trust.

To what extent does your ability to participate in political life make you happier? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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