How Swiss politics works

And now it’s becoming clear why almost all popular initiatives are rejected. If the initiative had a obvious chance of being approved, the parliament would introduce the necessary legislation on its own. From this point of view the small number of successful initiatives is not a sign of a system malfunction, but rather a proof that the system is functioning the way it is expected to.

And:

Another safety measure is that Swiss referenda are, in their essence, not polarizing. In referendum you are never asked to decide between two extremes, between, say, pro-life and pro-choice, but rather between the initiative proposal and the status quo. Voting against is always a safe and neutral option. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not sympathetic to the spirit of the initiative. You may just think it’s going too far, or maybe you like some aspects of it but don’t like some other.

Here is more from Martin Sustrik, via The Browser (always excellent).  I’ll say it again: there should be far more books and articles asking the basic question of why Switzerland seems to work so well — Progress Studies!

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There should also be a decent English book on the Sonderbund War which no one ever heard of.

this could be a good idea
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/20/opinion/coronavirus-preprints.html

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Saw this on briefingday.com the other day but I gave up after about 50%. It literally was more than I ever wanted to know.

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If you have not read it , the following is excellent and one of the few comprehensive and updated surveys available in English. The title says it all

https://www.amazon.com/Why-Switzerland-Jonathan-Steinberg/dp/0521709555

My only regret is that I had lived in Switzerland as an expat for 4 Years before picking it up.

I read it years ago - presumably the first edition. My memory is that it was excellent. So I second your recommendation.

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Switzerland has like 1000% more democracy than some readers of this blog, who advocate 10% less democracy, are comfortable with. Those with less elitist views might not like the amount of effort required from citizenry to keep the machine moving, they vote four times a year and they spend a lot of free time just to stay informed. Most would rather let a politician figure it all out and later blame when it all goes south.

It's also had the same political parties in government since somewhere in the 19th century, so these referendums and initiatives are an essential part of what would otherwise be a pretty "elitist" system.

"It's also had the same political parties in government since somewhere in the 19th century," --> That's not quite accurate though I get where you are coming from: Through much of the 19th century the government was controlled by a single party (the classically liberal FDP). Only in 1892 did one of the 7 seats go to the catholic conservative CVP. Today (and this has been more or less the case for quite some time now) the government is made up of for parties: 2 seats for the national-conservative SVP, 2 for the aforementioned FDP, 1 for the also mentioned CVP and 2 for the social democratic to socialist SP. So the 2 parties that now have 4 out of 7 seats (SVP and SP) never had any seat in government during the 19th century. The SVP got their first seat in 1930 and the SP in 1944.

Another way to look at it is that the party that had an absolute majority through all of the 19th century (the FDP) today only has 2 out of 7 seats (the last time they had a absolute majority with 4 out 7 seats was in 1941).

So while it is true that there has been a good amount of party stability, there has also been substantial change. And a good amount of that has been caused by popular initiatives: A major reason that broke the FDP's stronghold on the political system was the adoption of proportional representation for parliament by initiative in 1918. Similarly, the referendum that blocked the Swiss entry into the EEA in 1992 was very much a blow against the ruling political class. Finally, there has been some major breakdown of political power since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of much of the Old Boys Network that coalesced around connections through military (mandatory service), the economy (the big banks and such) and politics.

So, I would say that political power now is definitely more widely shared than it used to be.

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Basically there's a lot of political theater, while the moneyed interests that benefit from the status quo make sure that very little about the status quo ever actually changes.

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There should be more attention in high-school to all the mentions of the Framers to Switzerland, often called “the sister Republic”, and not only among the Anti-Federalists. Those references, starting from absolute anti-interventionism, might help to guide a comparative study of governance systems. But I think the “schooling-media complex” would strenuously oppose it, because it would show how the ideals of the founders have been thoroughly corrupted by both modern parties.

I have heard slaves have even been freed if you can imagine such nonsense.

Did not know Switzerland was heavy in slaves. Must be the reason they have one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. Thanks for the history lesson.

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The only country in the world that thinks Germans are spontaneous and humorous.

Meaning there is certainly a lot of progress to be made in Switzerland.

Bonjour

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PS. Tedesco bruto!

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Switzerland works because it's small.

People scale poorly.

There is a lot to said for that. Even the cantons don’t scale within Switzerland

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USA and China scale well enough. In addition to size, Switzerland cheats a bit by being the center of offshore banking (voted most corrupt by some groups), the top stash house for the world's kleptocrats, and benefit from the corruption of global institutions like FIFA and IOC.

US pressure has forced a bit more transparency in recent years, but yes, the country is a tax haven, and its citizens are smart enough not to upset that applecart.

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I've heard it argued that Switzerland essential acts as a money-laundering state. I.e. the wealth that was illicitly acquired in foreign countries is spent legitimately in Switzerland to provide education at expensive private schools, go on fancy vacations, buy expensive watches that hold their value quite well and are easy to conceal, etc.

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It's probably easier for smaller states. But it's not like countries couldn't be the size of Switzerland and as divided as the United States, and fail to really run referenda well (which is mainly to fail to accept the results). Even in a small country, people can point to conspiracies influencing votes, claim that most people are too stupid and ill informed to be involved in political process, etc.

Likewise a large country could work like Switzerland, with the right culture. Democracy is easier at smaller scales, but not impossible at large ones, if the culture is right, and the democracy represents a real nation of people.

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I am Swiss, and I feel very, very, very lucky to live in a country with such mechanisms. Of course, our system has its weaknesses, was very much influenced by history, and is designed for our specificities (e.g. multi-lingual country); therefore, it is difficult to claim it as a universal solution.

There is, however, one Swiss tool that could be implemented everywhere : the "legislative referendum", which allows 50'000 citizens to oppose a new law, and have the whole population vote for or against it. As mentioned in the article, it has the huge advantage of not being polarizing; but it also has a direct effect on the Parliament : it forces them to write good laws, because bad laws will be rejected. Even a good law including some debatable aspects (what Americans call "pork" ?) may be rejected because of one ugly thing; and the same law may be voted by the Parliament a few months later, but without the problematic aspect (it happens, yes), and will not face a referendum.

How luck we are...

Most of the states that I've lived in in the US have both the legislative referendum and the citizen's initiative. I wonder if they make it too difficult to force a referendum; IIRC a typical year in California or Oregon might see 4-8 referenda year.

And OTOH it is too easy to get an initiative on the ballot in CA, and possibly Oregon too. For a few million dollars or less you can hire professional signature gatherers who'll collect signatures from passers-by on the street and bingo your initiative is on the ballot. You now have to get people to vote for it but California in particular sees an endless stream of initiatives of varying degrees of ridiculousness and some of them pass due to a combination of apathetic non-voters compared to minorities of energized voters, voters who are uninformed in general, or voters who are swayed by advertising (this is where the initiative gets expensive). Examples of such initiatives include not one but two anti-gay marriage initiatives despite Californians being in favor of gay marriage
https://www.ppic.org/publication/californians-attitudes-toward-same-sex-marriage/
and the anti-illegal immigrant initiative Prop 187, which passed with the gleeful support of Pete Wilson and Republicans in California -- who won the battle but lost the war because Prop 187 so energized Latino and Democratic-leaning voters that the subsequent backlash swept Republicans out of statewide offices and most of the state legislative seats, and California has been a blue state ever since
https://www.cato.org/blog/proposition-187-turned-california-blue
There's also California's ban on slaughtering horses for meat or exporting them to foreign slaughterhouses, which came from yet another initiative
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1998_California_Proposition_6#:~:text=The%20proposition%20added%20sections%20598c,should%20have%20known%2C%20that%20any

Amazingly, California's constitution can be amended by a simple majority vote on an initiative. Until 2010, the California state budget needed a 3/5 supermajority to pass. So it was easier to amend the state constitution than it was to pass the year's budget.

California's initiative system has been out of control for years, despite periodic efforts to reign it in a little.
https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:QwWPRIA4HhsJ:https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/diaz/article/California-initiative-process-is-out-of-control-13213651.php+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

The polar opposite is New York State:

"In New York, citizens do not have the power to initiate statewide initiatives or referendums. Voters of New York have never voted on a ballot measure to authorize a statewide initiative and referendum process."

https://ballotpedia.org/New_York_2021_ballot_measures

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Many USA states can theoretically overturn legislation, however, it can only be done when there is no emergency clause, so legislators usually claim that their legislation is an emergency. The people don't protest because they don't value the ability to overturn legislation.

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The Swiss also do not grant immigrants citizenship without a local vote which might disqualify that person from getting it. I would love for that to be true here as well, but since we can't even enforce our immigration laws, this shows that it's not about the rules but about our willingness to enforce them.

Maybe the natives in the US should not have granted White Americans citizenship then?

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Well, for half a step in that direction, Thomas Naylor has some informal observations on why Swiss-like direct democracy would not be likely to work in America. You can find the essay in a slender volume I recently edited: Thomas Naylor's Paths to Peace: Small Is Necessary (Local Paths to Peace Today). The essay is on pages 89-93. For example:

Among the high profile issues which have been resolved by Swiss national referendums are women’s voting rights, abortion rights, creation of a new canton, abolition of the army, and Swiss membership in the League of Nations, United Nations, World Bank, IMF, and the European Union.

Several cantons still follow the centuries-old traditions of Landsgemeinde or open-air parliaments each spring. Others are experimenting with voting over the Internet.

However, it is at the commune level that Swiss democracy is most direct. Within the cantons, there are 2,902 communes in the Swiss Confederation, each run by a local authority. Just as the cantons enjoy a high degree of independence from the national government, within the cantons many of the communes also enjoy a high degree of independent authority and decision-making.

However:

But a word of caution is in order before embracing the Swiss model of direct democracy. The United States is more than forty times larger than Switzerland in terms of population. On the one hand, it has one of the most centralized governments in the world. On the other hand, it is also highly decentralized across 50 states, some of which like California, Texas, New York, and Florida are quite large and powerful, unlike Swiss cantons. Even if one sorts out all of the conceptual, constitutional, and legal problems required to make direct democracy work in the United States, the political balancing act will be formidable.

The United States needs to dissolve because excess centralization is the root of all political evil. I've even heard people call recently for a national mask mandate. As long as every real or imagined problem is a national issue, the United States will never progress.

Naylor thought the US too large and that it should break up into 21 (that is twenty one!) different states. He himself started the Second Vermont Republic, which was a secessionist movement. I attended a meeting they held in the Vermont Statehouse in October of 2012.

That too many nation-states are too large is the central thesis of the book.

Yeah I'd actually be in favour of that...as a Canadian citizen, I also wouldn't mind Canada break up into smaller entities (e.g
Provinces) which would in turn be part of a supranational Union together with the US states and potentially Mexican States... maybe with a "central" government only taking care of defense and maybe immigration... not sure if this is what"libertarian" Americans envision though...

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Excellent article! One point I’d like to add is that Switzerland’s tradition of democracy goes back much further than the author describes. The process of slowly introducing referenda into the constitution of 1848 can be seen as a restoration of democratic principles that are in fact much older and have always been alive at local levels. Also, the people often had to exert some pressure on politicians in order to preserve or gain their democratic rights. A good (German) book on that topic is “Revolten und Demokratie”, discussed here by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung:
https://www.nzz.ch/amp/feuilleton/schweizer-geschichte-wie-das-volk-fuer-seine-herrschaft-kaempfte-ld.1308010

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Overwhelmingly white population plus advantageous geographic position.

The US surely has a more advantageous geographic position than CH with its huge amount of land, space for agriculture and cities, natural resources as well as two oceans and only weak neighbours...

+1, Switzerland's geographical position doesn't matter as much in a stable Europe with minimal internal conflicts. Being the worlds most profitable illicit banking center helps also.

Europe is soooo stable that military service is still working in CH. It even opened to women. Read a couple history books and you'll never call the region stable.

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If you are a White American, and want to live in a "White" country, then put your money where your mouth is, and move to a "white", conservative country, like Hungary or Greece... but just don't complain about the wages or lower quality of life... you have to realize that in the US only 40 percent at most agree with your vision...

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Less messaging (you can substitute signaling since that's the term most often used here) and more communicating literally. Cowen's friend Agnes Callard: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/21/opinion/should-we-cancel-aristotle.html I've been a critic of speaking or writing in code (clarity in communication is my preference), which is often used to hide the speaker's/writer's meaning. Let's adopt Callard's (Switzerland's?) preference for speaking/writing literally.

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Switzerland works because it is full of the Swiss. If you moved them en masse to Costa Rica, it would work the same way.

Don't you mean it the other way around? Look at Israel, quite successful, despite the country being mostly desert with no resources. Hard to imagine Palestinians creating a state as nice as Israel, but Israel would probably be pretty nice no matter where in the world it is. I think there were actually proposals to put Israel in Madagascar or South America in the early 1900s. Would have saved a lot of drama!

Either way. It is the people, not the land. Low diversity coupled with a culture of a solid work ethic. Sorry if I was not clear, i.e., Israel, Hong Kong, etc.

Describing Israel as "low diversity" seems wrong—there's a large Arab population (~20% of Israeli citizens) and some pretty big cultural gaps between Israeli Jews.

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Less noticed is the importance of land ownership concentration in Switzerland. Younger people despair of owning properties due to the restricted supply, particularly in rural areas. If the mountainous terrain wasn't a bad enough limitation, the local landowners don't want to sell when they can rent and extract. You want to live in the same where you were born, then pay that rent and stop complaining.

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Referenda are appropriate for matters of institutional architecture, for bond issues, and for retention-or-removal of officials with long tenures. It's important that your election law prohibit commercial signature gathering, or you get California's initiative madness. There should be one or two propositions on the ballot each year, one or two recalls, and a handful of scheduled retention-in-office contests. Anything more fries the electorate's circuits.

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"I’ll say it again: there should be far more books and articles asking the basic question of why Switzerland seems to work so well — Progress Studies!"

Perhaps Garett Jones could write the book.

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“ there should be far more books and articles asking the basic question of why Switzerland seems to work so well”

Arend Lijphart’s book Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, does just that in the context of comparative governance. Finds generally that parliamentary systems with proportional representation tend to produce kinder, gentler countries, less polarized with more citizen satisfaction.

But having constitutional referenda allows the people to escape USA style judicial tyranny. And having a Federal Executive Council, SwItzerland escapes the cult of personality trap, which probably puts it above the crowd.

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aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

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