What Can a Divided America Learn from Switzerland?

As the U.S. scrambles for a solution to hyperpolarization, it would do well to look to an unassuming peer in federalism and its unique brand of democracy

Downtown Zürich, Switzerland. Image Credit: Brigitte Blättler via Getty Images

They say diversity is America’s strength, and large minority populations, countless religious denominations and broad regional differences make for a lot of diversity. But America is also sharply polarized: Surveys portray a country that seems to be ripping itself apart. In an Associated Press-NORC poll early this year, “only 11% [of people questioned] think Americans are united on the most important values,” while 88% said they were greatly divided.

Switzerland largely avoids the canyon-like divisions that characterize U.S. politics. Americans typically try to explain this by saying, “Well, it’s so homogeneous.” But Switzerland is much more diverse than one might think. What is the secret of this small democracy, more famous for its watches, chocolate and mountains than for how its politics works?

Like the fine workings of a Tissot or a Patek Philippe, Switzerland is complex and intricate. It has four national languages; it’s been shaped by historical differences between the Catholic and Protestant regions; and there’s a wide urban-rural divergence, with only 10% of the population living in the 60% of the country covered by the Alps. Adding to the diversity is the huge number of immigrants: 30% of the population is foreign-born, about the highest percentage in the world.

Over the centuries Switzerland has developed an electoral system and a culture that defuses political tensions and delivers peace and prosperity. A polarized U.S. looking for lessons from Switzerland can study the country’s special recipe: vivid democracy, a strong aversion to centralizing power, and the deep sense of responsibility that citizens feel toward their country.

Democracy In Action

Switzerland is often described as a direct democracy, but that’s somewhat of a misnomer because citizens are not directly involved in every legislative decision and don’t even elect the president and other members of the executive branch. However, the Swiss people hold a unique political power, thanks to the two main tools of direct democracy: the initiative and the referendum.

The initiative allows any group of Swiss citizens to gather signatures and put a proposal for amending the constitution on the ballot. As a result, the Swiss people are summoned to polling stations usually four times a year and get to vote on a variety of questions—nothing is off the table. Such a system may seem to invite instability, but the opposite is true. Initiatives routinely fail to pass. The constitution may eventually get changed only after multiple attempts.

The referendum allows citizens to call for a vote on a law passed or a treaty negotiated by the federal government. For example, last week citizens voted to allow the government to require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for gaining access to most public indoor places, and take a variety of other COVID measures. Concerns that the government was granting itself too many powers drove the campaign against the law, but only 38% of voters agreed.

Preschoolers practicing voting: The culture of democracy starts early in Switzerland. Image Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

What is the importance of these democratic instruments in a diverse country? Here are five ways that Swiss direct democracy helps reduce division and avoid extreme polarization.

—Both the initiative and the referendum act as a means of civic education. Each public vote encourages citizens to inquire about a complex topic and ponder both sides of the question. This helps people avoid simplistic and radical opinions, though not always.

—The votes are characterized by changing coalitions and majorities — geographic, generational, cultural and more — and each carries the possibility of people voting differently from their party. This minimizes the tribalism seen in the U.S., where voters tend to identify people across the political aisle as their opponents, or even their enemies, no matter the topic.

Checks and Balances

—For an initiative to succeed, most of the voters and most of the cantons, or states, must accept it. This helps alleviate the fear of rural and traditional regions that they’ll be swamped by affluent and densely populated urban centers.

—The initiative makes it possible for even the smallest groups to be heard because any person or group can place an initiative on the ballot by collecting 100,000 signatures in 18 months. And the referendum allows people to oppose laws they don’t like without having to depend on legislators to lead the effort; 50,000 signatures must be gathered in 100 days to call for a referendum.

Without initiatives and referendums on the national level in the U.S., people must depend on unofficial means to oppose a bill in Congress, such as lobbying their representatives or raising money to run advertising campaigns. They can always vote against their representative in the next election, but in the case of senators, that might not be for almost six years. (Some 26 U.S. states do allow initiatives and referendums on state-level issues.)

—Direct democracy works as an early-warning system for leaders unaware of new issues bubbling up from the population. In the U.S., leaders are often caught off guard by issues that seem to come out of nowhere, such as the opposition to how public-school classes are taught that dominated this year’s elections.

The initiative also works as an outlet to let people vent their frustration on certain issues. In a representative democracy, many topics are seen as unimportant or inappropriate by the legislature, so the initiative enables people to bring up topics that matter to them. In this way hot topics that are taboo for the Swiss Parliament—immigration, whether to strengthen ties with the European Union, or the tax that funds public broadcasters—can be discussed.

The Advantages of Federalism

Federalism is as cherished an institution in Switzerland as it is stateside. With Switzerland, the 26 cantons came together between the 13th and 20th centuries to form the country. This construction from the bottom up makes it possible to speak about non-centralization rather than decentralization because the Swiss state wasn’t founded by a central government.

One big advantage of federalism is that it gives citizens a greater role in the political process, and the makeup of Switzerland reinforces that strength. The country isn’t composed of a few big cities with millions of inhabitants but rather many midsize cities, which reduces the risk that one city might dominate economic, cultural or political activity. This puts citizens closer to the local administration, leading to a better understanding of local issues.

Underscoring the autonomy of the local jurisdictions, the cantons and municipalities collect more in tax revenue than does the federal government. In the U.S., by comparison, the states and other local authorities collect only 36% of the country’s total tax revenue.

Federalism also works as a counterbalance to the majoritarian tendencies of democracies. As seen in the U.S. and elsewhere, illiberal decisions and increasing centralization are inherent in democratic systems that don’t contain enough federalist checks on power. Increasing the authority of a central government, as those on the left in many countries advocate, can increase polarization because it leads to high-stakes, winner-take-all elections. Requiring the majority of cantons to agree on constitutional changes balances the power of the majority of voters, which in any country can cancel the rights of dissenting voices, jeopardize freedom and lead to tyranny.

One important dividend of federalism is that it helps keep taxes and regulations in check because of the competition it creates among cantons or states. If people don’t like their canton’s or municipality’s tax system, they can easily vote with their feet. U.S. taxpayers seeking to escape high state taxes and overregulation can do this too, but states are much larger geographically than cantons so this might mean moving far away from jobs, friends and relatives.

The Importance of the Militia System

What distinguishes Switzerland is not just its constitution and its structure, but also its culture. It trusts the layperson in politics and public administration far more than other countries do. Over time, governments from the capitol to local school boards usually become encrusted with permanent bureaucracies and career politicians whose instinct is to accumulate power and keep regular citizens at arm’s length. Switzerland, to its credit, works to limit the professionalization of the political class.

This goal is based on the republican ideal that the citizen expresses a bond to the nation by taking on public offices or duties in a part-time and voluntary capacity. Citizens are not subjects but rather are responsible for shaping their canton and the country. In the U.S., citizens aren’t regarded as subjects either, as the colonists had been under the king of England. Instead, the framers of the U.S. Constitution designed a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as President Abraham Lincoln put it. But the monstrous size of the federal government today often makes people feel like subjects.

Switzerland’s vaunted militia system embodies its vision of citizenship. Since the end of the 18th century, Switzerland has required all men to join the military. The result is that people of all backgrounds, languages and education levels become peers in uniform.

The system, however, has long been understood as something more than a military commitment. Since the 1830s, citizens have been called upon to take on responsibilities in public affairs, whether in municipalities or on a national level. Nowadays, members of the Parliament also have a regular job next to their legislative duties. This helps transfer knowledge between the private economy and the political sphere, and thus gives people a better comprehension of the two realms. And it puts politicians closer to the citizenry and makes them more independent because they are not financially dependent on their political job.

The militia system is closely linked to Switzerland’s democratic structure. By refusing to leave public affairs in the hands of an elite, it calls on each citizen to contribute and take on responsibility. This is reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Danger Signs

Switzerland has much to envy, but the image of a picture-perfect country is a misleading one. The genius built into its 19th century constitution is increasingly challenged, even endangered. Many popular initiatives and parliamentary actions—such as one the public supported last year mandating that employers provide paid paternity leave—invite more state intervention, not less. The result is more centralized political power and a weaker federalist structure. As in much of the rest of the world, the pandemic gave government officials the excuse they were waiting for to justify immediate political action over the slow consensus-building demanded by federalism.

This may be efficient for getting things done quickly, but efficiency might be the worst enemy of liberal societies. Diverse constituencies, in Switzerland as in America, need to engage in thoughtful debate and craft careful compromises. The U.S., being in a “state of perpetual presidential whiplash,” is all too familiar with the effects of rapid, top-down, partisan change. It may be in dire straits as a result. So perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Switzerland is that even with an array of built-in safeguards and release valves, the job of protecting freedom is never over.

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