Martin Sustrik has a 3-part series that helps understand how the Swiss direct democracy system works.

My takeaways:

  • The system depends a lot on decentralization. A lot of power is in the hands of municipalities and cantons (equivalent to states / counties in other countries), and the federal government concerns itself with a small number of issues.
  • People don't vote on every law. My mental image was every Swiss citizen having to get together once a year and figure out what laws to pass, which sounded really chaotic. In reality, federal and local parliaments make most of the laws. However using referenda the people can: 1/ vote for their own laws directly, or 2/ reject any law passed by parliament.
  • Some aspects of the system some to be in decline. Power is slowly centralizing, they've had a Trump-style demagogue (Christoph Blocher) a couple decades ago, and some municipalities have had difficulties filling administrative positions.

Two interesting bits:

What kinds of referenda people vote on, from part I:

"For cows with horns." The initiative initiated by farmer Armin Capaul. It proposes to subsidize the farmers who do not cut the cows' horns. 45.3% in favor. Rejected.
"For food independence." A complex proposal to support farmers. It includes a ban on genetically modified organisms. 31.6% in favor. Rejected.
"For phasing out nuclear energy." An initiative launched by the Green Party. It proposes to decommission all the Swiss nuclear power plants by 2029. 45.8% in favor. Rejected.
"For universal basic income." An initiative was initiated by several individuals. It proposes an unconditional regular income for all. The amount of income and the method of financing should be determined by law. 23.1% in favor. Rejected.

The degree of decentralization of power is quite remarkable. From part II:

When a photograph of the Swiss president waiting for a train trended on Twitter in 2014, people were amazed at what a safe country Switzerland has to be if the president can take a train just as any other mortal. Others flipped over Swiss egalitarianism, over the country where a farmer and a worker could find themselves in a train compartment with the president.
Few have realized that the prosaic explanation of the fact is simply that the president is not important enough to have to be transported in an armored limousine. In fact, many Swiss people have trouble remembering who the president happens to be this year.
[...] It turns out that Switzerland is not ruled by anyone in particular. And that brings us back to the subject of decentralization. The lesson we can learn here is that decentralization does not necessarily mean only that some powers are transferred from the state to the region, or perhaps to the municipality. Decentralization, in a broad sense, is a way of political thinking that seeks to prevent accumulation of power. And it does not matter whether it is an accumulation of power in the hands of one person (president), in one institution (government), or in one place (capital).