Direct democracy and metropolitan fragmentation in Switzerland and in California

In the beginning of the 20th century, many states in the USA, and especially California among them, implemented semi-direct democracy instruments that were directly inspired by the 1848 Swiss constitution—referendum, popular initiative, recall–to fight extensive corruption and nepotism. After a first rush, the use of these instruments remained of low intensity, until the last decades. In California, as well as in Switzerland, initiatives and referendums drastically gained in popularity, exactly while both states were experiencing a strong trend of metropolitanization. This trend, through the upscaling of urban systems and lifestyles, changes the political patterns of urban areas. The use of local initiatives is strongly correlated with both density and diversity at municipal level, what Jacques Lévy identifies as the urban gradient. During the last decades, they have shifted towards regulation of growth and land-use. I argue that we also see a correlation with the fragmentation of metropolitan areas. More fragmented areas, like San Francisco in California and Zürich in Switzerland, experience more local direct democracy. This result demonstrates the tendency of local direct democracy to localize policy-making, preventing its upscaling at the metropolitan level. Two hypothesis can be drawn. Initiatives can be viewed as a fix for bad politics in large constituencies where aggregation of voter preferences can not be achieved through representative democracy. But they also can be interpreted as the sign of a vivid democratic public sphere.

Presented at:
1st Annual Meeting of JurisDiversitas: Diffusion, Swiss Institute of Comparative Law, Lausanne, Switzerland, June 3-4, 2013

 Record created 2013-07-03, last modified 2019-03-16

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