What is a Representative Democracy?

A painting of the House of representatives. The United States of America has a representative democracy.
A painting of the House of representatives. The United States of America has a representative democracy.

A representative democracy is a system of government whereby eligible members of the public are empowered to elect representatives amongst themselves to enact laws and oversee and protect their interests in government. It is the opposite of direct democracy. Most political scholars see a representative democracy as the most efficient system of democracy, particularly in countries with large populations.

They base their argument on the numerous advantages of a representative democracy. The majority of countries in the world practice this system of government as parliamentary republics, federal republics or constitutional monarchies. Some examples of countries which practice representative democracy are the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Germany, South Africa, Brazil, India, Japan, the Philippines, Canada, France, Turkey, Argentina, Tanzania, Mexico, Senegal and China among many others.

The History of the Representative Democracy

Ancient Rome was the origin of the representative democracy, with the Romans practicing the earliest known form of representative democracy in the western world. However, the Roman representative democracy closely resembles a direct democracy particularly in the governance of the Roman assemblies. Nonetheless, this ancient form of representative democracy practiced by the Romans became the basis of the modern representative democracy practiced in most countries in the world. In medieval Europe, where absolute monarchies governed all countries, representative democracy was practiced in the low levels of the government structure where estates selected individuals amongst themselves who represented their interests before the ruling monarch and also advised the monarch. This medieval representative democracy was also inspired by the representative democracy practiced by the ancient Romans. Simon de Montfort established the earliest parliamentary democracy in the world after leading a successful revolt against the King of England; King Henry III and creating two parliaments which became one of the best-formulated representative democratic systems in history. The representative democratic system of government was adopted in other countries as a result of revolutions such as France which adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the Citizen in 1789 whose provisions included the establishment of the National Convention whose members were all elected.

Advantages of a Representative Democracy

Countries which practice a representative democracy enjoy several advantages that come with this system of government. Through a representative democracy, members of the public who may have limited knowledge or having limited interest in the political affairs of the country are given the opportunity to elect skilled representatives who are better placed to oversee and safeguard their interests. Another advantage of a representative democracy system of government is that members of the public who have representatives conducting their political duties and decisions can focus on their daily activities. The chosen representatives can aggregate to a wide range of demands from the public and model them into a practical and politically coherent program. Another advantage of a representative democracy is efficiency as the decision-making process in a representative democracy is streamlined and therefore quick as the representatives are few relative to the enormous number of people who they represent. In a direct democracy where the public is involved in the decision-making , the process is faced with major logistical challenges particularly if such a system of government is practiced in a country with a large population. Accountability is another advantage seen in a representative democracy as the representatives are accountable for any decisions that they take despite being given the authority to represent the public in the governance of the country. Accountability would be impossible in the absence of the chosen representatives.

Disadvantages of a Representative Democracy

With all the advantages associated with representative democracy, it may seem to be the ideal system of governance to be practiced by any country. However, a representative democracy also has numerous disadvantages against this system of government. One demerit seen in a representative democracy is misplaced trust from the members of the public as their voice in the government’s affairs ends after the election of their respective representatives. The hopes and aspirations of all members of the public as well as their expectations on how their affairs are to be looked into rests on the elected representatives, who may turn a deaf ear to their interests. However, in most instances upon being elected, these representatives then push their individual and selfish agendas and alienate the needs of the public. Another disadvantage seen in a representative democracy is that only the affairs of the majority are looked into. In a representative democracy, elected representatives are those who gets the majority of votes in an election and most cases no representative is elected unanimously. There is a small minority whose decision is overlooked and ignored in an election and therefore often feel neglected in the running of governmental affairs. The representative democratic system has another flaw and the public either accept or reject a prospective representative’s manifesto in its entirety and therefore can dismiss a relatively progressive manifesto due to few questionable clauses therein. On the flip side, there is a possibility for the public to elect a bad or corrupt representative after being manipulated into doing so through bribes or false promises. The elected representative can choose not to honor their promises to the voters and expect no repercussions except the denial of a reelection.

Characteristics of a Representative Democracy

There are several basic characteristics that define a representative democracy without which the system cannot operate. One is characteristic that should be guaranteed in a representative democracy is an open opportunity for genuine competition amongst prospective candidates. Another characteristic of any representative democracy is the presence of independent media to facilitate free and non-partisan communication to the public. Universal participation is another characteristic of a representative democracy so that all eligible voters are allowed to cast their respective votes. Eligibility is usually defined by the mental capacity of an individual as well as the attainment of a particular age and not based on race, gender or religious affiliation. Therefore there should be inclusion amongst eligible members of the public during the election process. Another characteristic of a representative democracy is that the majority rule whereby candidates who attain the majority of votes cast automatically are recognized as the victors by the whole population. Political equality is also another characteristic which defines a representative democracy where each voter is required to only cast one vote per candidate during elections with no exceptions. Therefore voter bribing is not allowed in representative democracies.


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