At the dawn of the primaries in the United States, there is much surprised rubbing of the eyes in front of the possibility that we might enter the U.S. election with a radical dreamer on the left (Bernie Sanders) and an egomaniac billionaire on the right (Donald Trump), both lining up the late-arriving Michael Bloomberg to represent the sane path down the middle. Both candidates play skillfully with two dangerous emotions: fear and anger. My grandmother had always advised that fear and anger were not wise counsellors.
Of course, it might all go very differently.Yet, at this moment in history, I am left wondering to what degree democracy actually ends up holding up to its promise of liberty and of considering “all men as equal”, the most profound meaning of the revolution according to Lincoln in his Gettysburg address in 1863. We seem far from this sentiment and clearly, “the common people” are angry and unhappy. To the extent of wanting to overthrow the elite in power with a man who has come to represent stupidity in many of its most vulgar dimensions? But is this a problem that only exists in the United States?
In Switzerland, we have our own Donald Trump as well. With a slightly better haircut, and only occasionally more moderated or sophisticated views, our Christoph Blocher still causes indigestion for many of us. If anything, our version has been more consistent and long-living and his political party has been on the rise. And yet, let us look at the two democracies and how good they are at preventing the madness that would threaten the very foundation they are built on.
The Unites States, like many democratic nations, lives an indirect democracy. This means, that the people elect their representatives that subsequently take decisions on their behalf. These representatives are grouped in political parties that people can choose to support, or not. In many countries, new political parties can emerge as a result of dissatisfaction with existing parties, in some not. For example, in Germany, the brand new party “Alternative für Deutschland” emerged after the Euro crisis and many people being unhappy about how Germany subsidizes the rest of Europe. In the Unites States, the bipartisan practice reigns, forcing political expression into two – opposing – camps. The only direct influence the people of the Unites States have is in the election of its representatives, including in the election of its President.
In Switzerland, which is one of the few direct democracies, things work exactly the other way around. While people still elect representatives that subsequently govern for them in two chambers, anybody who is able to collect 50,000 signatures on any topic will create a referendum which will be voted on by all citizens. We vote four times a year on three to four issues of all kind (examples: getting rid of the army, leaving the European Union, allowing minarets, etc.). And, also in opposition to the Unites States, the people don’t elect the President. Actually, it doesn’t even matter who is the President. We have removed all special powers from this position, with exception from an obligation and responsibility of representing Switzerland abroad, a sheer necessity to ensure other countries know who to talk to when they want the “top guy”. Our parliaments elect the seven Swiss ministers in accordance with an historic allocation of the top parties, meaning that each party can suggest one or two candidates for the ministry positions, depending on the size of the party in the country. Seven is a magic figure, preventing any party from a majority and requiring collaboration from all to achieve the much admired Swiss consensus. These elections also take place every four years, always on a Wednesday morning in early December, and ministers can be re-elected for as long as they want. Past ministers are paid a fair life-long salary for their kind service to the Swiss people. The President is determined by rotation among these seven ministers, for a period of one-year. Hardly enough to make any lasting connections internationally and to thus influence one way or the other very much. The foreign minister has more impact and power in the sense that she (we have more female ministers than male, these days) is likely to hold that position for a much longer period than just four years.
An important consequence of the Swiss system is that the government as such doesn’t change every four years as a result of presidential elections. It is unlikely that more than two or three ministers get replaced every four years, with many staying for much longer, thus providing a continuity that allows difficult issues to be tackled over the often required longer-term. It is also unlikely for any newly elected minister to replace the heads of the professionally run ministry she runs, these administrators often serve ministers of different parties and there is a tendency for the issue to matter more than the party-origin. This practice enables a sense continuity that is a valid and necessary safeguard against the kind of personalization of politics we are now seeing in the United States, where most likely both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent a voice of their party that may not actually reflect the dominant thinking of the parties at all.
In brief, in Switzerland, we suffer from “issues over personalities”, whereas the U.S. suffers from “personalities over issues”. In Switzerland, we are often confronted with having to vote on highly complex issues that by far not all citizens understand and where there is a high risk of political campaigns instrumentalizing voters on certain issues (a most recent example is the recent vote on foreigners). Worse, we have seen that people are quite incapable of voting in the interest of next generations when their own interests are at stake, not exactly very sustainable neither! In the United States, much time is spent on the personification of the next President, with issues being left to the lobbyists that surround the parliament like a sorry plague. Neither of these situations is ideal or perfect, and I am not even sure which one is better. My aim here was to start a discussion about different kinds of democracy – and there are many more than the two I have superficially compared here – and how they might best serve their original intent of liberty and equality among their people. How wise is it to impose a certain kind of democracy on a country with a history, which may or may not be able to even grasp this concept in a way that is in the best interest of its future? And how do we generate representatives that are able to fully represent not only current, but also future interests, of those not yet born. To me, that would be one of the hallmarks of true democracy in the context of limiting resources and dilemmas of dimensions that is threatening the very survival of our species in the not too distant future. Who has any answers for this?