Representative democracy

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   Countries designated "electoral democracies" in Freedom House's 2015 survey "Freedom in the World", covering the year 2014.[1]

Representative democracy (also indirect democracy, representative republic, or psephocracy) is a type of democracy founded on the principle of elected officials representing a group of people, as opposed to direct democracy.[2] All modern Western-style democracies are types of representative democracies; for example, the United Kingdom is a crowned republic and Ireland is a parliamentary republic.

Representative democracy is often presented as the only form of democracy possible in mass societies. It arguably allows for efficient ruling by a sufficiently small number of people on behalf of the larger number. Representative democracy has been conceptually associated with and historically instantiated by the political system known as "representative government," which was born in the 18th century with the French and American revolutions. It is a system in which people elect their lawmakers (representatives), who are then held accountable to them for their activity within government. [3]

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 Dáil Éireann (Ireland), and may be curtailed by constitutional constraints such as an upper chamber. It has been described by some political theorists including Robert A Dahl, Gregory Houston and Ian Liebenberg as polyarchy.[4][5] In it the power is in the hands of the elected representatives who are elected by the people in elections.

Powers of representatives[edit]

Representatives are elected by the public, as in national elections for the national legislature.[citation needed] 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. (indirect representation).

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: 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.[6]


See also: Democratization

The Roman Republic was the first government 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 inspired many political thinkers over the centuries,[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10][11] The first, in 1258, stripped the King of unlimited authority and the second, in 1265, included ordinary citizens from the towns.[12] Later, in the 17th century, the Parliament of England pioneered some of the ideas and systems of liberal democracy.[13][14]

The American Revolution led to the creation of a new Constitution of the United States in 1787. The 'Three-Fifths Compromise' allowed the southern slaveholders to consolidate power and maintain slavery in America for another eighty years,[15] but through the expansion of voting rights and liberties over subsequent decades and centuries the elected government became responsible to the will of the people.[16]

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 monarchies and republics with strong representative branches.

Research on representation per se[edit]

Further information: Representation (politics)

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.


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.[17] 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).[18] 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]

Proposed solutions[edit]

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


  1. ^ Freedom in The World 2015 (PDF)
  2. ^ "Victorian Electronic Democracy, Final Report – Glossary". 28 July 2005. Archived from the original on 13 December 2007. Retrieved 14 December 2007. 
  3. ^ Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University press,1996
  4. ^ Houston, G F (2001) Public Participation in Democratic Governance in South Africa, Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council HSRC Press
  5. ^ Dahl, R A (2005) 'Is international democracy possible? A critical view'. In Sergio Fabbrini (editor) Democracy and Federalism in the European Union and the United States: Exploring post-national governance: 195 to 204 (Chapter 13), Abingdon on Thames: Routledge
  6. ^ The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Volume I. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1854. pp. 446–8. 
  7. ^ Livy, 2002, p. 34
  8. ^ Watson, 2005, p. 271
  9. ^ Budge, Ian (2001). "Direct democracy". In Clarke, Paul A.B. & Foweraker, Joe. Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-19396-2. 
  10. ^ Jobson, Adrian (2012). The First English Revolution: Simon de Montfort, Henry III and the Barons' War. Bloomsbury. pp. 173–4. ISBN 978-1-84725-226-5. 
  11. ^ "Simon de Montfort: The turning point for democracy that gets overlooked". BBC. 19 January 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2015 ; "The January Parliament and how it defined Britain". The Telegraph. 20 January 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2015. 
  12. ^  Norgate, Kate (1894). "Montfort, Simon of (1208?-1265)". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 38. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  13. ^ Kopstein, Jeffrey; Lichbach, Mark; Hanson, Stephen E., eds. (2014). Comparative Politics: Interests, Identities, and Institutions in a Changing Global Order (4, revised ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 37–9. ISBN 1139991388. Britain pioneered the system of liberal democracy that has now spread in one form or another to most of the world's countries 
  14. ^ "Constitutionalism: America & Beyond". Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 30 October 2014. The earliest, and perhaps greatest, victory for liberalism was achieved in England. The rising commercial class that had supported the Tudor monarchy in the 16th century led the revolutionary battle in the 17th, and succeeded in establishing the supremacy of Parliament and, eventually, of the House of Commons. What emerged as the distinctive feature of modern constitutionalism was not the insistence on the idea that the king is subject to law (although this concept is an essential attribute of all constitutionalism). This notion was already well established in the Middle Ages. What was distinctive was the establishment of effective means of political control whereby the rule of law might be enforced. Modern constitutionalism was born with the political requirement that representative government depended upon the consent of citizen subjects.... However, as can be seen through provisions in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the English Revolution was fought not just to protect the rights of property (in the narrow sense) but to establish those liberties which liberals believed essential to human dignity and moral worth. The "rights of man" enumerated in the English Bill of Rights gradually were proclaimed beyond the boundaries of England, notably in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. 
  15. ^ "We Hold These Truths to be Self-evident;" An Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Roots of Racism & slavery in America Kenneth N. Addison; Introduction P. xxii
  16. ^ "Expansion of Rights and Liberties". National Archives. Retrieved December 27, 2015. 
  17. ^ 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).
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "1,5". Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Josiah Ober , Robert Wallace , Paul Cartledge , Cynthia Farrar (1st ed.). 15 October 2008. pp. 17,105. ISBN 978-0520258099. 

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