Representative democracy

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Representative democracy (also indirect democracy) is a variety of democracy founded on the principle of elected officials representing a group of people, as opposed to direct democracy.[1] All modern Western-style democracies are types of representative democracies; for example, the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and Germany is a parliamentary republic.

It is an element of both the parliamentary system or presidential system of government and is typically used in a lower chamber such as the House of Commons (UK) or Bundestag (Germany), and is generally curtailed by constitutional constraints such as an upper chamber. It has been described by some political theorists as Polyarchy.[citation needed]

Powers of representatives[edit]

Representatives generally hold the power to select other representatives, presidents, or other officers of government (indirect representation). These representatives are elected by the public directly by organizing elections .[citation needed]

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:[citation needed]

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 judgement in the exercise of their powers, even if their views are not reflective of those of a majority of voters:

...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.[2]

History[edit]

The Roman Republic was the first government in the western world to have a representative government, although it had a form of a direct government in the Roman assemblies. The Roman model of governance inspired many political thinkers over the centuries,[3] and today's modern representative democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek models 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.[4] Representative democracy is a form of democracy in which people vote for representatives who then vote on policy initiatives as opposed to a direct democracy, a form of democracy in which people vote on policy initiatives directly.[5] 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.[citation needed]


Representative democracy came into particular general favour in post-industrial revolution nation states where large numbers of subjects or (latterly) citizens evinced interest in politics, but where technology and population figures remained unsuited to direct democracy. As noted above, Edmund Burke in his speech to the electors of Bristol classically analysed their operation in Britain and the rights and duties of an elected representative.

Globally, a majority of the world's people live in representative democracies including constitutional monarchy with strong representative branch, the first time in history that this has been true.[citation needed]

Criticisms[edit]

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".[6] 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 (first edition in German) and a second edition in 1947 (in German).[7] Adolf Gasser stated the following requirements for a representative democracy in order to remain stable, unaffected by the "Iron Law of Oligarchy":

  • Society has to be built up from bottom to top. As a consequence, society is built up by people, who are free and have the power to defend themselves with weapons.
  • These free people join or form local communities. These local communities are independent, which includes financial independence, and they are free to determine their own rules.
  • Local communities join together into a higher unit e.g. a canton.
  • There is no hierarchical bureaucracy.
  • There is competition between these local communities e.g. on services delivered or on taxes.

A drawback to this type of government is that elected officials are not required to fulfill promises made before their election.[citation needed]

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.[8][9] The rationale behind this practice was to avoid lobbying and electioneering by economic oligarchs.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Victorian Electronic Democracy, Final Report - Glossary". 28 July 2005. Archived from the original on 13 December 2007. Retrieved 14 December 2007. 
  2. ^ The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Volume I. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1854. pp. 446–8. 
  3. ^ Livy, 2002, p. 34
  4. ^ Watson, 2005, p. 271
  5. ^ Budge, Ian (2001). "Direct democracy". In Clarke, Paul A.B. & Foweraker, Joe. Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-19396-2. 
  6. ^ Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens (1911, 1925; 1970). Translated as Sociologia del partito politico nella democrazia moderna : studi sulle tendenze oligarchiche degli aggregati politici, from the German original by Dr. Alfredo Polledro, revised and expanded (1912). Translated, from the Italian, by Eden and Cedar Paul as Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (Hearst's International Library Co., 1915; Free Press, 1949; Dover Publications, 1959); republished with an introduction by Seymour Martin Lipset (Crowell-Collier, 1962; Transaction Publishers, 1999, ISBN 0-7658-0469-7); translated in French by S. Jankélévitch, Les partis politiques. Essai sur les tendances oligarchiques des démocraties, Brussels, Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 2009 (ISBN 978-2-8004-1443-0).
  7. ^ Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas. Grundlinien einer ethischen Geschichtsauffassung. Verlag Bücherfreunde, Basel 1947. In 1983 republished under: "Gemeindefreiheit - kommunale Selbstverwaltung" (Adolf Gasser/Franz-Ludwig Knemeyer), in de reeks "Studien zur Soziologie", Nymphenburger, München, 1983.
  8. ^ "Selection by lot in the Athenian Democracy". Retrieved 1 October 2013. 
  9. ^ "1,5". Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Josiah Ober , Robert Wallace , Paul Cartledge , Cynthia Farrar (1st ed.). October 15, 2008. pp. 17,105. ISBN 978-0520258099. 

External links[edit]