Difference between revisions of "Representative Democracy"

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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." (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22017)

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