How Is Representative Democracy Defined?
Simply put, a representative democracy is a system of government in which all eligible citizens vote on representatives to pass laws for them. A perfect example is the U.S., where we elect a president and members of the Congress. We also elect local and state officials. All of these elected officials supposedly listen to the populace and do what's best for the nation, state or jurisdiction as a whole.
For a representative democracy to work, there are several conditions that have to be met. First, there has to be an opportunity for genuine competition in the selection of leadership (if people think that elections are rigged, or predetermined, there can be no meaningfully honest competition). Second, there has to be free communication, both among the people and in the press. Third, voters have to believe that a meaningful choice exists between candidates and that differences in policy are honestly reflected in each. The degree to which these three factors are present go a long way to determining the effectiveness of a representative democracy.
Where Does Democracy Come From?
Winston Churchill once said democracy 'is the worst form of government in the world, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.' Many human societies have practiced some form of democracy over the millennia, the most important (for the American version, at any rate) example originated in ancient Greece. The world's first working democracy, as far as we can tell, was established by Cleisthenes in the Greek city-state of Athens, around 508 BCE.
The Greeks came up with the form of government that we call direct democracy, which is a precursor to representative democracy. In a direct democracy, all eligible citizens vote on every issue. For example, if a direct democracy were considering a tax increase, all the eligible voters would vote on that decision. This form of government is often called 'participatory' or 'Aristotelian democracy.' In Athens, the concept of 'eligible' voters only included male citizens and excluded all others (slaves and women could not vote).
However, imagine for a moment having to vote on every single thing that happens in a country—it would be impossible, for many reasons, especially in a country the size of the U.S. The Greeks thought so, too, so they came up with a way to choose a smaller subset of individuals to do the voting. In Athens, for example, the citizens made use of a device called a kleroterion, which was something like a bingo-ball selector. Each citizen would receive a token representing him; several hundred were picked each day, and for a time, they would make decisions for the entire city-state. This was an early form of the next evolution of democracy, called representative democracy.
Basics of a Democracy
But what is democracy, anyhow? It's generally agreed that there are five criteria that are necessary for any society to call itself democratic:
- Equality in voting
- Effective participation
- Enlightened understanding
- Citizen control of the agenda
- Inclusion (must be open to all citizens within a nation)
Examples of a Representative Democracy
Representative democracies are much more common, and much more varied, than direct democracies today. Overall, democracies differ from each other in the way that they elect and appoint officials and how their governments are structured.
The U.S., of course, is one of the oldest and most stable representative democracies in the world. The U.S. is a federal republic in which a large central government co-exists with smaller state governments. The federal government of the U.S. is set up with three branches: executive (the president), legislative (the House and Senate) and judicial (the Supreme Court). State and local governments are set up in various ways.
Great Britain, on the other hand, practices a form of parliamentary democracy, which in many ways is similar to the U.S. system, with one major exception: unlike the U.S., which has separate legislative and executive branches, there are just the two legislative branches: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The 'leader' of the British state, also called the Prime Minister, is the leader of the nation's majority party. Unlike in the U.S., the Prime Minister is part of the legislative branch, instead of its own executive branch.
India is the world's largest democracy. It is also a parliamentary system, but it has a federal form of government, like the U.S. India has an elected president, but unlike the U.S., the president's power is largely ceremonial. Most of the executive power is held by the Cabinet, who are senior members of the Council of Ministers, which is led by the Prime Minister. Most of India's bicameral (2-house) parliament is elected by the legislatures of the states and union territories. However, the Prime Minister is appointed by the president.
Pros of a Representative Democracy
Representative democracies are, by definition, more practical for larger nations than direct democracy; electing a person to stand for a larger group of citizens means that the system doesn't have to deal with the many (and considerable) issues in arranging votes for the entire voting population. Similarly, representative democracy allows for a longer deliberative process; this may not sound like a good thing, but it avoids the impulsive tendency of citizens to act without really considering the implications of a given policy.
Cons of a Representative Democracy
On the down side, many complain that representative policy is impractical, because of the demands of time, information and energy. After all, a representative democracy the size of the U.S. requires a lot of elections, which cost a lot of money. There's also the issue of the increase in technical expertise necessary to even understand the many tricky policy issues, much less vote on them effectively. A representative democracy can also cause people to feel less empowered, because the candidates they vote into office don't always necessarily do what the voters think they should. Some think this phenomenon has led to dwindling voter participation in the U.S.
Direct democracy is a system of governance that started in ancient Athens, around 508 BCE. In it, all eligible citizens vote on decisions for the government rather than relying on representatives. A representative democracy, by contrast, is one in which voters select representatives who vote on their behalf. Democracy, in either form, only works if there is a genuine competition for leadership; if there is freedom of expression and the press; and if voters believe a meaningful choice exists in policies and leadership. In order to call itself democratic, a society must provide equality in voting, effective participation, enlightened understanding, citizen control of the agenda and be inclusive to all citizens. The U.S., Great Britain and India are three examples of representative democracies.
The pros of a representative democracy are that it is a more practical system for larger nations; it allows for a longer deliberative process; and avoids the outcome of decisions made impulsively by popular demand. The cons of a representative democracy are that it demands a lot of time, information and energy; policy issues demand a lot of technical expertise; and it can cause people to feel less empowered, causing dwindling voter participation.
After you've completed this lesson, you can determine whether you have the ability to:
- Talk about direct democracy as it existed in ancient Athens and the development of democratic ideals thereafter
- Understand how a representative democracy works
- Identify the five criteria of a democracy
- Provide examples of democratic governments
- Write the pros and cons of representative democracy
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Activities—What is Representative Democracy? Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons
Divide into two groups, either with your friends or classmates. One group will argue in favor of direct democracy, while the other argue for representative democracy. Spend sometime with your group mates and write down the pros and cons of your form of democracy. After that, engage in a debate over the virtues of each. You will want to keep in mind the characteristics of both types of democracy, as well as the size of the population of your society. After the debate, have a group discussion about the different types of democracy you read about in this lesson.
On a blank piece of paper, draw a chart that has 4 rows and 3 columns. In the top left box, write ''Nation.'' In the three boxes below that, write '~United States,'' ''Britain,'' and ''India,'' respectively. In the remaining boxes of the top row, next to the ''Nation'' box, write ''Type of Government'' and ''Characteristics of Democracy.'' Fill in the remaining boxes with information you learned from the lesson. Once complete, you will have a handy study guide to refer back to.
Additional Questions to Consider:
- What conditions hold the potential to undermine a representative democracy? (Hint: think about equality and fairness in elections.)
- Who was Cleisthenes and why is he important for the history of democracy? (Hint: go back to Ancient Greece.)
- Name the 5 characteristics a society needs to be classified as ''democratic?'' (Hint: citizens' equality is key.)
- Name 1 reason that would make a direct democracy in the United States difficult to implement? (Hint: think about population.)
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