What can a divided America learn from Switzerland?

Monday, January 31st, 2022

Switzerland largely avoids the 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.… 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.

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.


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.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Sounds good. Now… who will bell the cat?

  2. Philip H. Gattey says:

    They vote on everything, true, but the degree of social control when I was there in 1994 was astounding. You live, work, and marry as you are told. No kids. Anywhere.

    The best bread, wine, and cheese you have ever tasted or ever will. But the steaks had to have been cut from a dead cow.

    Lots of tolerance. No love. Foreigners are feared.

    Anyway. Nice people that behave like insects. It’s not a democracy I would live in.

  3. Roo_ster says:

    “…deep sense of responsibility that citizens feel toward their country.”

    The ruling class feels no such responsibility as can be determined by their words and actions. Blacks, latins, jews, and asians tell us regularly they have no regard for–let a lone responsibility for–the USA.

    The last group of people who do/did feel such responsibility are the Badwhites. Nowadays, Badwhites are reviled and discriminated against such and are waking up to those facts. Some Badwhites have learned to despise in return. When the Badwhite preference/revulsion cascade hits, the country will be in some serious shinola.

  4. Bruce Purcell says:

    TR Fehrenbach, who wrote the classic on Korea This Kind of War, wrote a good book on The Swiss Banks. He thinks that cantons talk about how they hate each other, blow off steam that way, and get along.

  5. Hoyos says:

    Harry, easy, nobody, that’s who.

    I like these kinds of articles for their almost childlike innocence. Like if we just have a nice system, nobody is going to be crooked, envious, or predatory. Like we can fix human nature without God and that the people in power have enough good will to even want that lofty impossible historically blood soaked goal.

    Americans aren’t Swiss and a huge swathe of our rulers at least borderline hate their own country or at least most of the people who live in it.

    Additionally, you can’t look at Switzerland now to answer the question of why Switzerland is peaceful and prosperous now; you have to look at the Swiss past, and nobody wants to hear about that. The Swiss are living off a heavy duty inheritance from their forefathers.

  6. Isegoria says:

    I couldn’t find The Swiss Banks on Amazon, but there is a very expensive used copy of his evocatively named The Gnomes of Zurich, which would appear to have the same topic and the same year of publication (1966).

  7. Harry Jones says:

    I once knew a young couple from Switzerland (German speaking.) They were really, really teeth-achingly nice people.

    They tried to move to Germany and got caught in an apartment scam. They were exactly the sort of people who get scammed. The sort who think life is all lederhosen and yodeling.

    How do people get to be that way? Where do absurdly high trust societies come from? (It’s no mystery how they die.)

  8. Aristophanes says:

    “Adding to the diversity is the huge number of immigrants: 30% of the population is foreign-born, about the highest percentage in the world.”

    If your first question to this statement from the article wasn’t, “and what are the racial makeups and nationalities of these people?” I’m not sure I can help you.

  9. Isegoria says:

    Your comment about Swiss getting swindled by Germans is amusing, Harry, in light of something that stood out when I read Michael Lewis’s Boomerang, about the recent financial crisis and its global repercussions:

    But then how did people who seem as intelligent and successful and honest and well organized as the Germans allow themselves to be drawn into such a mess? In their financial affairs they’d ticked all the little boxes to ensure that the contents of the bigger box were not rotten, and yet ignored the overpowering stench wafting from the big box. Nölling felt the problem had its roots in German national character. “We entered Maastricht because they had these rules,” he says, as we move off to his kitchen and plates heaped with the white asparagus Germans take such pride in growing. “We were talked into this under false pretenses. Germans are, by and large, gullible people. They trust and believe. They like to trust. They like to believe.”

  10. Harry Jones says:

    Isegoria, you may just have explained the first half of the twentieth century in Germany.

    Fritz Lang tried to warn them, I think, with M. The children were a stand in for ordinary people.

    Got some Swiss German ancestry myself. I got taught some things growing up that turned out to be absolute garbage. I’m still a tad bitter about it. Because of it, I’ve become something a nihilist in the original Russian sense of the word.

  11. Sam J. says:

    One thing not mentioned that might play a VERY big role in the Swiss looking after their country. They ALL serve in the military.

    Now if you read books about influence and persuasion one of the big things to get people to do what you want is to involve them in some arduous task to get into an organization. People who do this are more likely to defend and push for the organization.

    So everyone getting military training, keeping firearms in their houses, etc. would be a big influence.

    It would also reduce friction. In the military there may be people you can not stand but…the mission is important so most of the time arguments are moderated. There’s no alternative if you need to work together. In cases like this the opponents can just agree not to speak with each other or avoid bringing up known contentious issues. This may be a factor.

  12. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Excluding the rape and abuse culture of the 7th century Muslims.

  13. Bruce Purcell says:

    There’s a copy of The Swiss Banks for six bucks under “other formats,” about what mine cost. I think The Gnomes of Zurich is just an alternate title, maybe for a British edition. Fehrenbach just gives and gives. Try his history of the UN with a lot of snappy descriptions of the cold war, This Kind of Peace.

  14. Jim says:

    Perhaps a divided America could try being the home base of the world’s central banks’ central bank, the international mail system, and the world’s preeminent research organization?

    Switzerland’s founders probably knew of America in the fourteenth century. If only they had set sail across the Atlantic Ocean…

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