From 1291 in Switzerland to 2012 in California

150 150 Paul H. Betancourt

This past August 1st Switzerland celebrated its 720th anniversary as a nation. To put it in perspective, that is three hundred years before the founding of the first English colony in America, and almost five hundred years before our Declaration of Independence. 

Other than being an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, what’s the point of history five thousand miles away from us here in California? The answer lies in three principles of the Swiss charter that could help us in the Golden State as we struggle to survive and prosper in the 21st Century. 

The original Swiss confederates agreed to:

  • affirm each other’s identity
  • pledge mutual support and protection to each other
  • accept mediation in the case of disagreement between one canton and another

Those three principles have held the Swiss together over the centuries. These principles could help us pull together in California just as easily. 

Affirm One Another’s Identity

The original Swiss charter was an agreement between “the people of the valley of Uri, the democracy of the valley of Schwyz, and the community of the Lower Valley of Unterwalden.” Their cultural diversity is historically as profound as the diversity we have here in California. They have four languages and cultures.

The Swiss never made the surrendering of one’s regional identity a requirement for membership. As various cantons joined the Swiss confederation they kept their languages, foods, music and clothing; in essence,they kept all of their cultural values.

Mutual Protection

“Seeing the malice of the age, in order that they may better defend themselves, and their own…have promised in good faith to assist each other with aid, with every good counsel and every favor, with persons and goods, within and without, with might and main against one and all, who may inflict upon any one of them with any violence, molestation or injury or may plot any evil against their persons or goods.”

There are a lot of threats to our state these days. The University of California can already measure air pollution here coming over from the industrial revolution in China. Economic competitors seek to undercut the businesses that provide our jobs. There is no end of threats. 


“…if dissension shall arise among any of the confederates the most prudent of the confederates shall come forth to settle the difficulties between the parties. As shall seem right among them; and whichever party rejects their verdict shall be held as a adversary by the other confederates…” 

The historic root of mediation is Switzerland. Believe me, there was plenty to mediate. Today Switzerland is a beautiful and peaceful country. Over the centuries, however, the Swiss cantons went to war over the usual causes- religion, territory, money, etc. What was unique is that they worked it out internally. 

So How Does This Nice History Lesson Apply to California Today?

The time has come for us to pull together. Population growth, land use, air quality and water quality are just some of the problems we face. Each town, each region has done what it can on its own. 

If we are able to follow the Swiss model we can

  • affirm each others’ identity and keep our own, rising above racial, ethnic and classist divides
  • defend and support each other in the challenges ahead, setting aside partisan rancor for the greater good of the state
  • mediate our differences internally, avoiding litigation that has marred such processes as redistricting

Yes, I am a starry-eyed idealist. But, I have also been in the sun long enough to become a realist. The Swiss model has stood the test of time. It helped them solve problems far larger than what we face. Swiss history offers us a model to work out problems within our region.

Now is the time to improve how we work together as a State. Old models and methods are not enough to keep up with the challenges of our day. We need a profound shift in Sacramento. Gridlock does not serve the people of California.

Are we willing to affirm each other, to commit to work together for the mutual good and to agree to mediation as our problem solving method? If we are then we have model that can help.

[more on Switzerland’s history can be found in the author’s book, The Swiss Model: Can the Swiss Model of Confederation Be Applied in Afghanistan?, ISBN 978-3-8383-9077-2]

Paul H. Betancourt is the Managing Partner of VF Farms in Fresno, CA


Paul H. Betancourt

All stories by: Paul H. Betancourt