Are people happier to live in a democracy?

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The more citizens have a say, the happier they are - at least that's what scientific studies say. So should all countries introduce direct democracy, as we have in Switzerland? A conversation with the professor for comparative politics, Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen.

This content was published on March 10, 2017 - 11:00 am

Swissinfo.ch: does direct democracy make you happy?

Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen: I think that direct democracy has many good sides. But I'm rather skeptical whether it determines how happy someone is on a personal level.

This post is part of #DearDemocracy, the platform for direct democracy from swissinfo.ch.

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From a scientific point of view, the findings are not really robust. We have done further analysis based on this studyexternal link, which you are likely referring to. We found the following: If the aspect of satisfaction with democracy is included in the analysis, the positive effect of direct democracy on happiness in life disappears.

That also seems to make more sense. If we have direct democracy and people like it, it is likely to affect the way they perceive democracy. But the connection to personal life is unlikely if we assume that politics is more of a minor role in life for most people.

swissinfo.ch: But when it comes to politics, people are happier when they have more say in decision-making?

I.S .: There is a slight connection - at least in Switzerland. However, the findings from Switzerland cannot be generalized.

If we in Switzerland were to abolish direct democracy, the people would be dissatisfied because they would be missing something. Conversely, however, one cannot assume that the introduction of direct democracy in a country will make people happier.

You can also see this in the example of Brexit: a vote was held because it was hoped for positive effects. But if you carry out one-off votes without them being embedded in the entire political system, it leads to ambiguities. For example, no one thought beforehand what would happen if Scotland votes differently from the rest of Great Britain. And these things seem very important to me. One cannot assume a general 'luck effect' of direct democracy.

Swissinfo.ch: what speaks against direct democracy?

I.S. One of the downsides is openness to populism. You can often see that the referendum campaigns are not just about the matter itself. It is also debated about completely different things and a reference is made to a specific template. That is certainly one of the disadvantages.

swissinfo.ch: If, as a citizen, I could no longer have a say in specific issues, but could only vote for people, that would honestly make me dissatisfied. How can I trust politicians that they actually represent my opinion?

I.S .: The question is: do you have to trust? A central element of democracy is that you can control politicians in some way.

In Switzerland, the system is actually based on a general mistrust: That 'those in Bern' [government and parliament, A.d.R.] are doing something and we [the voters, A.d.R.] then have to take initiatives and referendums to ensure that the right thing comes out.

But even in a purely representative democracy you have control options - and maybe even the tougher measures. The transparency and accountability are much clearer in a representative model.

If you elect a government in a representative democracy like Germany and it then makes a policy that you do not like, then you can punish the government directly by not voting anymore.

In Switzerland [with seven members of the government from different parties, A.d.R.] it is sometimes quite difficult to know who is actually responsible. This has a negative effect on the ability to punish and express suspicion.

How does political participation make you more satisfied? Discuss with us in the comments!

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