Representative Democracy

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


John Keane:

From around the tenth century CE, democracy entered a second historical phase whose centre of gravity was the Atlantic region - the watery geographic triangle that stretched from the shores of Europe across to Baltimore and New York down to Caracas, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. This period opened with the military resistance to Islamic civilisation in the Iberian peninsula, which during the twelfth century CE triggered the invention of parliamentary assemblies. It ended on a sorry note, with the near-destruction worldwide of democratic institutions and ways of life by the storms of mechanised war, dictatorship and totalitarian rule that racked the first half of the twentieth century. In between, extraordinary things happened.

Shaped by forces as varied as the rebirth of towns, religious struggles within the Christian Church and revolutions in the Low Countries (1581), England (1644), Sweden (1720) and America (1776), democracy came to be understood as representative democracy. This at least was the term that began to be used in France and England and the new American republic during the eighteenth century, for instance by constitution makers and influential political writers when referring to a new type of government with its roots in popular consent. Again, nobody knows who first spoke of 'representative democracy', though one political writer who broke new ground was a French nobleman who had been foreign minister under Louis XV, the Marquis d'Argenson. He was perhaps the first to tease out the new meaning of democracy as representation. 'False democracy soon collapses into anarchy', he wrote in a 1765 tract that reached the reading public posthumously. 'It is government of the multitude; such is a people in revolt, insolently scorning law and reason. Its tyrannical despotism is obvious from the violence of its movements and the uncertainty of its deliberations. In true democracy,' concluded d'Argenson, 'one acts through deputies, who are authorised by election; the mission of those elected by the people and the authority that such officials carry constitute the public power.'

This was a brand-new way of thinking about democracy. It referred to a type of government in which people, acting as voters faced with a genuine choice between at least two alternatives, are free to elect others who then act in defence of their interests: that is, represent them by deciding matters on their behalf. Much ink and blood were to be spilled in defining what exactly representation meant, who was entitled to represent whom, and what had to be done when representatives snubbed those whom they were supposed to represent. But common to the second historical phase of democracy was the belief that good government was government by representatives. Thomas Paine's intriguing remark, 'Athens, by representation, would have surpassed her own democracy', provides a vital clue to the entirely novel case for representative democracy that was made forcefully by late eighteenth-century publicists, constitution makers and citizens. Often contrasted with monarchy, representative democracy was praised as a way of governing better by openly airing differences of opinion - not only among the represented themselves, but also between representatives and those whom they are supposed to represent. Representative government was praised as a way of freeing citizens from the fear of leaders to whom power is entrusted; the elected representative temporarily 'in office' was seen as a positive substitute for power personified in the body of unelected monarchs and tyrants. Representative government was hailed as an effective new method of apportioning blame for poor political performance - a new way of encouraging the rotation of leadership, guided by merit and humility. It was thought of as a new form of humble government, a way of creating space for dissenting political minorities and levelling competition for power, which in turn enabled elected representatives to test their political competence and leadership skills, in the presence of others equipped with the power to sack them. The earliest champions of representative democracy also offered a more pragmatic justification of representation. It was seen as the practical expression of a simple reality: that it wasn't feasible for all of the people to be involved all of the time, even if they were so inclined, in the business of government. Given that reality, the people must delegate the task of government to representatives who are chosen at regular elections. The job of these representatives is to monitor the spending of public money. Representatives make representations on behalf of their constituents to the government and its bureaucracy. Representatives debate issues and make laws. They decide who will govern and how - on behalf of the people.

As a way of naming and handling power, representative democracy was an unusual type of political system. It rested upon written constitutions, independent judiciaries and laws that guaranteed procedures that still play vital roles in the democracies of today: inventions like habeas corpus (prohibitions upon torture and imprisonment), periodic election of candidates to legislatures, limited-term holding of political offices, voting by secret ballot, referendum and recall, electoral colleges, competitive political parties, ombudsmen, civil society and civil liberties such as the right to assemble in public, and liberty of the press. Compared with the previous, assembly-based form, representative democracy greatly extended the geographic scale of institutions of self-government. As time passed, and despite its localised origins in towns, rural districts and large-scale imperial settings, representative democracy came to be housed mainly within territorial states protected by standing armies and equipped with powers to make and enforce laws and to extract taxes from their subject populations. These states were typically much bigger and more populous than the political units of ancient democracy. Most states of the Greek world of assembly democracy, Mantinea and Argos for instance, were no bigger than a few score square kilometres. Many modern representative democracies - including Canada (9.98 million square kilometres), the United States (9.63 million square kilometres), and the largest electoral constituency in the world, the vast rural division of Kalgoorlie in the federal state of Western Australia that comprises 82,000 voters scattered across an area of 2.3 million square kilometres - were incomparably larger.

The changes leading to the formation of representative democracy were neither inevitable nor politically uncontested. Representative democracy did not have to happen, but it did. It was born of numerous and different power conflicts, many of them bitterly fought in opposition to ruling groups, whether they were Church hierarchies, landowners, monarchs or imperial armies, often in the name of 'the people'. Exactly who 'the people' were was a vexed point that produced much mayhem. The age of representation witnessed not only a remarkable revival of the old language of democracy. The word itself was given new meanings that would have struck ancient observers either as oxymoronic or as plain nonsense. The second age of democracy saddled itself with new epithets. There was talk of 'aristocratic democracy' (that first happened in the Low Countries, at the end of the sixteenth century) and new references (beginning in the United States) to 'republican democracy'. Later came 'social democracy' and 'liberal democracy' and 'Christian democracy', even 'bourgeois democracy', 'workers' democracy' and 'socialist democracy'. These new terms corresponded to the many kinds of struggles by groups for equal access to governmental power that resulted, sometimes by design and sometimes by simple accident or unintended consequence, in institutions and ideals and ways of life that had no precedent. Written constitutions based on a formal separation of powers, periodic elections and competing parties and different electoral systems were new. So too was the invention of 'civil societies' founded on new social habits and customs - experiences as varied as dining in a public restaurant, playing sport or controlling one's temper by using polite language - and new associations that citizens used to keep an arm's length from government by using non-violent weapons like liberty of the printing press, publicly circulated petitions, and covenants and constitutional conventions called to draft new constitutions. Municipal government flourished in some quarters. A culture of citizenship rights and duties was born. Remarkably, this period also spawned - in the cooperative and workers' movements in the Atlantic region, for instance - the first talk of 'international democracy'.

The age of representation unleashed what the French writer and politician Alexis de Tocqueville famously called a 'great democratic revolution' in favour of political and social equality. Spreading from the Atlantic triangle, this revolution often suffered setbacks and reversals, especially in Europe, where it was mainly to collapse in the early decades of the twentieth century. The democratic revolution was fuelled by rowdy struggles and breathtaking acts, such as the public execution in England of King Charles I. Such events called into question the anti-democratic prejudices of those - the rich and powerful - who supposed that inequalities among people were 'natural'. New groups, like slaves, women and workers, won the franchise. The formal abolition of slavery marked off this period from the world of assembly democracy, which often rested on slavery. At least on paper, representation was eventually democratised, stretched to include all of the population, at least in those countries where it was attempted. But such stretching happened with great difficulty, and against great odds. Even then it was permanently on trial; in more than a few cases, the United States and Spanish American countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included, the definition of representation was actually narrowed by withdrawing the right to vote from certain groups, particularly black and poor and indigenous people. Not until the very end of this second phase - during the early decades of the twentieth century - did the right to vote for representatives come to be seen as a universal entitlement. That happened first for adult men and later - usually much later - for all adult women. But even then, as the experiences of totalitarianism and military dictatorship were to show, the opponents of democratic representation fought hard and with considerable success against its perceived inefficiencies, its fatal flaws and supposed evils. They demonstrated that democracy in any form was not inevitable - that it had no built-in historical guarantees." (

Source: The Life and Death of Democracy. By John Keane



Stephen Shalom:

"Representative democracy has several important flaws.

First, it treats politics as strictly instrumental -- that is, as a means to an end, instead of a value in its own right. But political participation is intrinsically worthwhile: it gives people the experience of controlling their own lives. The more that the task of thinking about how we can collectively manage our lives is delegated to others, the less knowledgeable we become regarding our society, the less we determine our own destinies, and the weaker become our ties of solidarity to our fellow citizens.

A second problem with representative democracy is that representatives for many reasons don't in fact represent their constituents. Representatives say one thing to get elected and then change their positions once in office. They have no real connection to the hundreds of thousands of people they represent. Their different life circumstances lead them to develop different interests from those of their constituents.

We could, of course, "mandate" representatives -- that is, require them by law to to keep their campaign promises. But what happens when circumstances change? Surely, we don't want representatives to be compelled to carry out policies that new developments have made inappropriate or even harmful? Alternatively, we could mandate all representatives to follow the evolving wishes of their constituents as reflected in public opinion polls. But if we do this, then the representatives are rendered technically irrelevant. There is no need for representatives to study or debate the issues because it doesn't matter what they think. All that matters is that they vote according to their constituents' stated wishes. Mandated representatives could simply be replaced by a computer that compiles the opinions of the people and then votes accordingly. But this is really nothing more than a system of direct (referendum) democracy. So if representatives are mandated, they are irrelevant, and if they are not mandated then they will often not be truly representative of their constituents.

Advocates of representative democracy do make some legitimate arguments, however. They claim that it would take too much time for everyone to decide everything. This point is often exaggerated -- people's tolerance for meetings, for example, cannot be judged by their reaction to meaningless meetings today where they have no real power; nevertheless, it is true that not everyone has, or ever will have, unlimited time or enthusiasm for politics.

A second argument on behalf of representative democracy is that representative legislatures are deliberative bodies that debate and negotiate complex resolutions that fairly capture the essence of an issue, whereas the citizenry as a whole would be incapable of such fine tuning. They have to vote a ballot question up or down; they can't reword or amend, even though we know that the precise wording of a ballot question can often skew the results. This is a valid point, one which any alternative to representative democracy needs to take account of." (

Pirate Party critique

Zacqary Adam Green:

"In a representative democracy, citizens are fundamentally disconnected from the decision-making process. Their powers of self-determination end once they have pointed at somebody and said, “lead us.” Until the next election, their opinions no longer matter. The process of making, enforcing, and interpreting laws is left entirely up to the rulers.

Theoretically, a leader has an incentive to do a good job and actually represent the interests of the people; if they don’t, they lose the next election. In practice, the disconnect between politician and citizen leads to apathy.

The bourgeois argument in favor of representative democracy asserts that the “unwashed masses” lack the knowledge and intelligence to properly govern, and therefore must allow only the most educated to make decisions. This ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy; representatives, being actively involved with the process of governing, have more information from which to work with than their constituents.

In reality, the constituents are more than capable of understanding all of this government-y stuff, if it were only explained to them and opened up to them. This often doesn’t happen. The people aren’t kept in the loop, and don’t feel that their voices are heard. They have no way of knowing whether or not their leaders’ decisions are truly for the best. With all of the information technology we have at our disposal today, it’s absurd that there are so few avenues to make a real connection with elected leaders.

But simply slapping the Intertubes on top of representative democracy isn’t enough. Representatives have had plenty of easy avenues of communication open to them for decades. Letter-writing, phone calls, personal meetings; all of these allow representatives to open a dialogue with their constituents. Yet the disconnection remains. No matter how much citizens can communicate with their leaders, they still must put their full faith and trust in an authority above themselves to make decisions. Outside of an election, citizens have no real power, and they know it.

This lack of power breeds apathy and ignorance. Until it breeds violence.

The process of making, enforcing, and interpreting laws isn’t a part of most people’s lives. They don’t see it, they don’t experience it, and therefore they don’t feel invested in it. And they don’t notice when it’s about to go wrong, until it’s too late. How long before a well-run, functioning representative democracy stumbles and falls prey to the disenfranchisement of its citizens? Corruption can be fixed, but how long until it just comes back again?

As this cycle continues, people are hurt, environments are destroyed, wealth is hoarded, futures are ruined, and it becomes harder and harder to fight each time. How much longer can this go on?

This cycle can be broken. The dichotomy between “the government” and “the people” needs to disappear. No more pointing at people, telling them to lead, and sitting back while they have the fate of society in their hands. Governments need to be built around citizen participation and inclusion. Informal representatives might emerge organically on a case-by-case basis, motivated not by a cushy job but by a desire to help their fellow citizens achieve goals. Everyone would have a hand in their future." (

Arthur Brock on The Failure of Representative Democracy

Arthur Brock:

"Representative Democracy may have been a breakthrough 2000 years ago. It even made sense 200 years ago when the U.S. Constitution was written. The only way to discuss and deliberate was to go meet someplace, and everyone can’t ride hundreds of miles by horseback or carriage to participate, so you choose representatives to bring your local news and concerns to the table. There are many alternatives in an Internet age.

Fine — except for a few major problems.

  • One person can’t actually represent many. Maybe if we sit down and you tell me your concerns and commitments about an issue, then I could represent you (and myself) on that issue. But as you add a few more people, that gets increasingly difficult. Now make it millions of people that I don’t talk to directly and make it apply across all issues. What are the chances I’m really representing you? Is it even possible that I could come close to representing that kind of population across the complex range of issues that officials are supposed to make decisions about?
  • Party Affiliation: A two-party system reduces politics down to voting for a conservative or progressive. Multi-party politics isn’t much better as still reduces the range of discourse down to the ideological platform of the party. Voter choices go from 2 to 3 or 5, which is nowhere near the level of complexity of choice that we need for navigating the world we’re in.
  • Non-Local Issues: Particularly, at the level of the Federal government, most of the decisions made have little to do with locale. Local decisions are certainly made on neighborhood, municipal, and loosely state levels. (Many states are too big be “local” ) So we are constrained to voting by party and locale. These factors map very poorly to the real world challenges we need to collectively navigate."


More Information