Representative democracy

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Representative democracy, also known as indirect democracy, is a type of democracy where elected people represent a group of people, in contrast to direct democracy. [1] Nearly all modern Western-style democracies function as some type of representative democracy: for example, the United Kingdom (a unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy), Germany (a federal parliamentary republic), France (a unitary semi-presidential republic), and the United States (a federal presidential republic). [2]


Representative democracy can function as an element of both the parliamentary and the presidential systems of government. It typically manifests in a lower chamber such as the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and the Lok Sabha of India, but may be curtailed by constitutional constraints such as an upper chamber and judicial review of legislation. Some political theorists (including Robert Dahl, Gregory Houston, and Ian Liebenberg) have described representative democracy as polyarchy. [3] [4] Representative democracy places power in the hands of representatives who are elected by the people. Political parties often become central to this form of democracy if electoral systems require or encourage voters to vote for political parties or for candidates associated with political parties (as opposed to voting for individual representatives). [5]

Powers of representatives

Representatives are elected by the public, as in national elections for the national legislature. [2] Elected representatives may hold the power to select other representatives, presidents, or other officers of the government or of the legislature, as the prime minister in the latter case.

The power of representatives is usually curtailed by a constitution (as in a constitutional democracy or a constitutional monarchy) or other measures to balance representative power: [6]

Theorists such as Edmund Burke believe that part of the duty of a representative was not simply to communicate the wishes of the electorate but also to use their own judgment in the exercise of their powers, even if their views are not reflective of those of a majority of voters: [7]

Certainly, Gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.


The Roman Republic was the first known state in the Western world to have a representative government, despite taking the form of a direct government in the Roman assemblies. The Roman model of governance would inspire many political thinkers over the centuries, [8] and today's modern representative democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek model, because it was a state in which supreme power was held by the people and their elected representatives, and which had an elected or nominated leader. [9] Representative democracy is a form of democracy in which people vote for representatives who then vote on policy initiatives; as opposed to direct democracy, a form of democracy in which people vote on policy initiatives directly. [10] A European medieval tradition of selecting representatives from the various estates (classes, but not as we know them today) to advise/control monarchs led to relatively wide familiarity with representative systems inspired by Roman systems.

In Britain, Simon de Montfort is remembered as one of the fathers of representative government for holding two famous parliaments. [11] [12] The first, in 1258, stripped the king of unlimited authority and the second, in 1265, included ordinary citizens from the towns. [13] Later, in the 17th century, the Parliament of England implemented some of the ideas and systems of liberal democracy, culminating in the Glorious Revolution and passage of the Bill of Rights 1689. [14] [15] Widening of the voting franchise took place through a series of Reform Acts in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The American Revolution led to the creation of a new Constitution of the United States in 1787, with a national legislature based partly on direct elections of representatives every two years, and thus responsible to the electorate for continuance in office. Senators were not directly elected by the people until the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. Women, men who owned no property, and Black people, and others not originally given voting rights, in most states eventually gained the vote through changes in state and federal law in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Until it was repealed by the Fourteenth Amendment following the Civil War, the Three-Fifths Compromise gave a disproportionate representation of slave states in the House of Representatives relative to the voters in free states. [16] [17]

In 1789, Revolutionary France adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and, although short-lived, the National Convention was elected by all males in 1792. [18] Universal male suffrage was re-established in France in the wake of the French Revolution of 1848. [19]

Representative democracy came into general favour particularly in post-industrial revolution nation states where large numbers of citizens evinced interest in politics, but where technology and population figures remained unsuited to direct democracy.[ citation needed ] Many historians credit the Reform Act 1832 with launching modern representative democracy in the United Kingdom. [20] [21]

The U.S. House of Representatives, one example of representative democracy USHouseStructure2012-2022 SeatsByState.png
The U.S. House of Representatives, one example of representative democracy

Globally, a majority of governments in the world are representative democracies, including constitutional monarchies and republics with strong representative branches. [22]

Research on representation per se

Separate but related, and very large, bodies of research in political philosophy and social science investigate how and how well elected representatives, such as legislators, represent the interests or preferences of one or another constituency. The empirical research shows that representative systems tend to be biased towards the representation of more affluent classes, to the detriment of the population at large. [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30]


In his book Political Parties , written in 1911, Robert Michels argues that most representative systems deteriorate towards an oligarchy or particracy. This is known as the iron law of oligarchy. [31] Representative democracies which are stable have been analysed by Adolf Gasser and compared to the unstable representative democracies in his book Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas which was published in 1943 and a second edition in 1947. [32] Adolf Gasser stated the following requirements for a representative democracy in order to remain stable, unaffected by the iron law of oligarchy:

A drawback to this type of government is that elected officials are not required to fulfill promises made before their election and are able to promote their own self-interests once elected, providing an incohesive system of governance. [33] Legislators are also under scrutiny as the system of majority-won legislators voting for issues for the large group of people fosters inequality among the marginalized. [34]

Proponents of direct democracy criticize representative democracy due to its inherent structure. As the fundamental basis of representative democracy is non inclusive system, in which representatives turn into an elite class that works behind closed doors, as well as the criticizing the elector system as being driven by a capitalistic and authoritarian system. [35] [36]

Proposed solutions

The system of stochocracy has been proposed as an improved system compared to the system of representative democracy, where representatives are elected. Stochocracy aims to at least reduce this degradation by having all representatives appointed by lottery instead of by voting. Therefore, this system is also called lottocracy. The system was proposed by the writer Roger de Sizif in 1998 in his book La Stochocratie. Choosing officeholders by lot was also the standard practice in ancient Athenian democracy [37] and in ancient India. The rationale behind this practice was to avoid lobbying and electioneering by economic oligarchs.

The system of deliberative democracy is a mix between a majority ruled system and a consensus-based system. It allows for representative democracies or direct democracies to coexist with its system of governance, providing an initial advantage. [38]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Democracy</span> Form of government

Democracy is a form of government in which the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation, or to choose governing officials to do so. Who is considered part of "the people" and how authority is shared among or delegated by the people has changed over time and at different rates in different countries. Features of democracy often include freedom of assembly, association, property rights, freedom of religion and speech, inclusiveness and equality, citizenship, consent of the governed, voting rights, freedom from unwarranted governmental deprivation of the right to life and liberty, and minority rights.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Election</span> Process by which a population chooses the holder of a public office (most countries can elect

An election is a formal group decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual or multiple individuals to hold public office.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Government</span> System or group of people governing an organized community, often a state

A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generally a state.

Oligarchy is a conceptual form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. These people may or may not be distinguished by one or several characteristics, such as nobility, fame, wealth, education, or corporate, religious, political, or military control.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Politics</span> Activities associated with group decisions

Politics is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. The branch of social science that studies politics and government is referred to as political science.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Direct democracy</span> Form of democracy

Direct democracy or pure democracy is a form of democracy in which the electorate decides on policy initiatives without elected representatives as proxies. This differs from the majority of currently established democracies, which are representative democracies. The theory and practice of direct democracy and participation as its common characteristic was the core of work of many theorists, philosophers, politicians, and social critics, among whom the most important are Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and G.D.H. Cole.

Deliberative democracy or discursive democracy is a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making. It adopts elements of both consensus decision-making and majority rule. Deliberative democracy differs from traditional democratic theory in that authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of legitimacy for the law. Deliberative democracy is closely related to consultative democracy, in which public consultation with citizens is central to democratic processes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Parliamentary system</span> Form of government

A parliamentary system, or parliamentarian democracy, is a system of democratic governance of a state where the executive derives its democratic legitimacy from its ability to command the support ("confidence") of the legislature, typically a parliament, to which it is accountable. In a parliamentary system, the head of state is usually a person distinct from the head of government. This is in contrast to a presidential system, where the head of state often is also the head of government and, most importantly, where the executive does not derive its democratic legitimacy from the legislature.

The first parliaments date back to the Middle Ages. In 930, the first assembly of the Alþingi was convened at Þingvellir in Iceland, becoming the earliest version of a formalized parliamentary system. It was a combination of national assembly, court of justice and yearly cerebration, where the most powerful leaders, called goðar, met to decide on legislation and dispense justice, with the whole community in attendance.

Participatory democracy, participant democracy or participative democracy is a form of government in which citizens participate individually and directly in political decisions and policies that affect their lives, rather than through elected representatives. Elements of direct and representative democracy are combined in this model.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Republicanism in the United States</span> Political philosophy of individual liberty and representative democracy

The values, ideals and concept of republicanism have been discussed and celebrated throughout the history of the United States. As the United States has no formal hereditary ruling class, republicanism in this context does not refer to a political movement to abolish such a class, as it does in countries such as the UK, Australia, and Netherlands. Instead, it refers to the core values that citizenry in a republic have, or ought to have.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of democracy</span> Aspect of history

A democracy is a political system, or a system of decision-making within an institution or organization or a country, in which all members have an equal share of power. Modern democracies are characterized by two capabilities that differentiate them fundamentally from earlier forms of government: the capacity to intervene in their own societies and the recognition of their sovereignty by an international legalistic framework of similarly sovereign states. Democratic government is commonly juxtaposed with oligarchic and monarchic systems, which are ruled by a minority and a sole monarch respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Liberal democracy</span> Political ideology and form of government

Liberal democracy is the combination of a liberal political ideology that operates under a representative democratic form of government. It is characterized by elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, a market economy with private property, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all people. To define the system in practice, liberal democracies often draw upon a constitution, either codified or uncodified, to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract. After a period of expansion in the second half of the 20th century, liberal democracy became a prevalent political system in the world.

In governance, sortition is the selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. The system intends to ensure that all competent and interested parties have an equal chance of holding public office. It also minimizes factionalism, since there would be no point making promises to win over key constituencies if one was to be chosen by lot, while elections, by contrast, foster it. In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the traditional and primary method for appointing political officials, and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Liquid democracy</span> Combination of direct and representative democracy

Liquid democracy is a form of delegative democracy, whereby an electorate engages in collective decision-making through direct participation and dynamic representation. This democratic system utilizes elements of both direct and representative democracy. Voters in a liquid democracy have the right to vote directly on all policy issues à la direct democracy; voters also have the option to delegate their votes to someone who will vote on their behalf à la representative democracy. Any individual may be delegated votes and these proxies may in turn delegate their vote as well as any votes they have been delegated by others resulting in "metadelegation".

Types of democracy refers to pluralism of governing structures such as governments and other constructs like workplaces, families, community associations, and so forth. Types of democracy can cluster around values. For example, some like direct democracy, electronic democracy, participatory democracy, real democracy, and deliberative democracy, strive to allow people to participate equally and directly in protest, discussion, decision-making, or other acts of politics. Different types of democracy - like representative democracy - strive for indirect participation as this procedural approach to collective self-governance is still widely considered the only means for the more or less stable democratic functioning of mass societies. Types of democracy can be found across time, space, and language. In the English language the noun "democracy" has been modified by 2,234 adjectives. These adjectival pairings, like atomic democracy or Zulu democracy, act as signal words that point not only to specific meanings of democracy but to groups, or families, of meaning as well.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Citizens' assembly</span> Body formed from the citizens of a state to deliberate on an issue or issues of national importance

A citizens' assembly is a body formed from randomly selected citizens to deliberate on important issues.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to politics and political science:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Embedded democracy</span>

Embedded democracy is a form of government in which democratic governance is secured by democratic partial regimes. The term "embedded democracy" was coined by political scientists Wolfgang Merkel, Hans-Jürgen Puhle, and Aurel Croissant, who identified "five interdependent partial regimes" necessary for an embedded democracy: electoral regime, political participation, civil rights, horizontal accountability, and the power of the elected representatives to govern. The five internal regimes work together to check the power of the government, while external regimes also help to secure and stabilize embedded democracies. Together, all the regimes ensure that an embedded democracy is guided by the three fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and control.

Oral democracy is a talk-based form of government and political system in which citizens of a determined community have the opportunity to deliberate, through direct oral engagement and mass participation, in the civic and political matters of their community. Additionally, oral democracy represents a form of direct democracy, which has the purpose of empowering citizens by creating open spaces that promote an organized process of discussion, debate, and dialogue that aims to reach consensus and to impact policy decision-making. Political institutions based on this idea of direct democracy seek to decrease the possibilities of state capture from elites by holding them accountable, to encourage civic participation and collective action, and to improve the efficiency and adaptability of development interventions and public policy implementation.


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