Representative Democracy

Democracy in terms of governance can be described as the form of government that is run through the input of its citizens either indirectly or directly. It is different from other types of governments that are run by small groups of superior people or individuals. Democracy requires an individual to be accountable of his or her deeds or decisions. Many governments globally have embraced democracy in diversified forms. Historically, there have been two types of democracy transformations which have brought different models of democratic governance as well as different kinds of interpretation of the concept of democracy (Setala, 2006, p. 152). The two types of democracy include direct (pure or participatory) democracy and representative (indirect) democracy. Most of the governments have embraced representative democracies, meaning that the citizens elect their representatives to run the government as their agents and vote on matters like passing of laws. The key difference between the direct democracies and representative democracies is that, in direct democracies, all qualified citizens can vote on matters such as passing of laws. Although direct democracy seems to be the most appealing, representative democracy is the most common institution due to its practical advantages (Baldiga, 2012, p. 2).  

Since representative democracy is the most common, a key problem arises as to whether it succeeds in implementing choices that the citizens would make when using direct democracy. In general, representative democracy cannot implement the choices of the population because it is relying on the elected representatives but not the whole population. When a problem arises, every qualified and eligible citizen should at least be given a chance to express his/her preferences over the available alternatives which is not the case with representative democracy. This paper will discuss the main differences, in theory and practice, between direct and representative democracy. The paper will analyze different issues that are related to the two types of democracies.


From a theoretical point of view, direct democracy remain a normative ideal since it allows individual right to direct participation without involving someone else on your behave. Despite its normative appeal, it is rarely practiced. In fact, more than half of the states in the U.S. do not practice direct democracy at the federal level and only allow for referendums or recalls. In most of the governments globally, direct democracy plays a minor role with an exception of Switzerland (Frey, 1994, p. 339). Therefore, most of the institutions in the world have embraced representative democracies in which the elected officials make decisions on behalf of their electorate. From a practical perspective, representative democracy can be considered to be better as compared to direct democracy because it shifts the burden of making decisions to a small group of qualified leaders as well as reducing transaction costs.

In representative democracies or indirect democracies, there must be eligible voters who are established in terms of agreed qualifications such as age and citizenship. Eligible voters are then supposed to elect their representatives to serve in the government as members of parliament, senate or a chamber. The elected representatives are normally elected by eligible voters in a certain region of a nation. Therefore, the elected leader represents the people of his/her region and indirectly consent to serve the interests of people in that region (Setala, 2006, p. 154). In this context, a representative must be in a position to balance all the competing interests in his/her area of jurisdiction and by so doing; he/she should attempt to fulfill the interests of the greatest number of the people he/she represents.   

To enable the representative leaders in the national government to serve their electorates well and meet their needs, they normally maintain regional offices so that their electorates can communicate to them through these offices (Setala, 2006, p. 154). The communication between the electorates and the representatives allow the representatives to understand the needs of the electorates clearly. Representatives are usually contacted by individual electorates to influence them on the way to vote for a given bill or pushing through a specific piece of legislation. Sometimes some measures are voted directly by the electorates in terms of proffers on the ballot. Furthermore, most of the representative democracies endorse referendums.

In direct democracy or participatory democracy, every individual plays an active role in the governance. There is a common believe that this kind of government can only succeed in a localized region with a small population because large population of eligible citizens can obstruct the workings of the government (Frey, 1994, p. 339). A large population can clog the workings of the government by initiating endless debates and votes that will end up not achieving anything. For a direct democracy to perform as intended, citizens must possess an active interest in the success of their government.

It is difficult to manage a nationwide direct democracy, but with the advances in technology, there is hope that many citizens can play active roles in governments (Frey, 1994, p. 342). In most cases, both democracies are used. Representative democracy is normally used in higher level of governance while direct democracy is used in the lower level of governance in which citizens participate in their town meetings. Allowing citizens to play a role in the government on the town level contributes to a more interconnected, caring and active community.

Direct democracy model assists citizens to prioritize on issues that are significant to them, instead of relying on representatives to address issues on their behalf and make decisions on what is crucial to them. For instance, citizens from a given region might decide to place a higher priority on funding for health care facilities, and citizens from another region might decide to place a higher priority on their transportation sector. Elected representatives tend to make decisions that are contrary to the desires of the electorates possibly because of political reasons or their personal beliefs (Frey, 1994, p. 341).

There is a clear difference between direct democracy and representative democracy. In direct democracy, citizens are involved directly in making decisions by referendums on laws that are disliked or proposing laws, citizens also vote to ascertain who enters public offices, and citizens are in a position to recall public leaders or officials who are not performing their duties as intended (Matsusaka, 2004, p. 14). On the other hand, representative democracy uses elected representatives or officials to make decisions on behalf of their electorate (Matsusaka, 2004, p. 14). In both cases, people play a vital role in running the government, although the government is run in two different ways.

A well-known example of a direct democracy is the Town Meeting practiced in many cities of England (Frey, 1994, p. 342). In the Town Meetings which are carried out annually, citizens who are in attendance are allowed to vote on issues that are of importance to their community. For instance, citizens have the power to make a decision on how funds should be allocated in the community or even propose new laws that will enable the community to run in a smooth manner.

A good example of the representative democracy is a house of the legislature such as the U.S. Senate (Setala, 2006, p. 155). Members of the legislature are elected by citizens in their area of jurisdiction, but in some cases, they may be appointed depending on the way the government is run. The elected representatives are required to make decisions on behalf of the citizens, but citizens are not actively involved, although citizens are allowed to testify at hearings on laws of interests and also encouraged to keep in touch with their representatives so that they can raise their issues of concern to him/her.   

Both democracies are of eminent importance. Direct democracy function best in a small population with actively involved citizens, making it suitable for small towns like those of the New England. Representative or indirect democracy has created a more manageable and streamlined process through qualified and experienced elected leaders or officials. Nonetheless, it also relies on the input of the citizens. For a direct democracy to perform as intended, citizens need to be interested and educated, participating fully in votes and other issues where their opinion is quested.

Many nations have created a blend of representative and direct democracy to enhance their performance. For instance, many states in the U.S. have an initiative system and referendum system, as a form of direct democracy (Matsusaka, 2004, p. 14). These systems allow individual citizens to draw issues on the ballot through support from other voters’ signatures. This creates a forum whereby people can raise an issue of concern as well as play an active role in shaping their governments.

The difference between direct and representative or indirect democracy is also brought out in the names of the two systems of democracy. Direct democracy demands for direct participation from the citizens, while representative democracy is subjected to indirect participation as only the representatives are actively participating (Baldiga, 2012, p. 3). However, both democracies cannot be allowed to run without checks and balances aimed at ensuring that officials do not overstep their bounds.

Representative democracy is faced by several ties or limits that keep the elected leaders or representatives be close to the people. Examples of these limits include constitution restrictions, short sessions, frequent election and short terms. Other restrictive methods include recall elections and term limits. Representative democracy is generally based on constitution democracy. That is, it is curbed by constitution constraints. The elected representatives are supposed to adhere to the rule of law while voting to different issues. One key disadvantage of this form of democracy is that the representatives can amend the law in favor of their personal interests or political issues rather than the interests of the majority citizens. However, there is normally an independent judiciary that ensures that the government operates in accordance with the law and not in their wishes.  Problems associated with representative democracy can be divided into two: those that cause harm to the governance and those that cause harm to individuals (Baldiga, 2012, p. 3). Harms to governance include: elections favor the corrupt, corruption, serving the interests of a few, focus on conflict, suppression of issues, single point of failure, news media conflict of interest, short-term thinking, democracy is always endangered, and overlooking problems and solutions. Harms to individuals include: disenfranchisement, trivial participation, views not represented, and no direct say.

Several countries using representative democracies permit three kinds of political actions that ensure there is limited direct democracy. These actions include recall, initiative, and plebiscite (referendum) (Matsusaka, 2004, p. 14). Referendum allows every citizen to participate in a voting session aimed at ensuring whether a certain law should be rejected. Initiatives are normally brought forth by citizens to compel the consideration of laws without the consent or opposition of the elected representatives. Recalls give the citizens power to remove or fire elected representatives from their offices before they complete their term.   

In direct democracy, the steering wheel for the government is driven by people. There are several advantages associated with this form of governance such as issues that some people may hide are easily raised, authority is restored to the people as they are made responsible and not the parties, it curbs the imbalances of power by making politicians responsible to the people, the whole community is involved, makes for better legislation, forces politicians to act on petitions rather than throwing them away, people gain control over the parliament as well as the country’s direction, parliamentary government is restored with representatives, and makes the politicians more accountable (Frey, 1994, p. 343). Direct democracy is also associated with some disadvantages such as transaction costs, some people will be politically active than others, there will be an increase in referenda, and the government and media may influence the decisions made by the citizens (Frey, 1994, p. 343).

In direct democracy, people are given all the right to participate irrespective of their physical wellbeing, sex orientation, gender, religious beliefs, among others. This form of democracy is uncommonly fine in theory, but when put into practice, it does not necessarily match the theory. It requires full participation from all the eligible citizens, but in the real sense, not everyone will commit himself or herself to attend meetings meant to discuss some issues of concern. It is clear that not everybody will be involved in direct democracy, and that is one of the reason we can put it that ‘better said than done’. In theory, we can describe it exceptionally well, but in reality, it might not take place. Most probably not everyone will be committed to this system day in day out, making it extremely hard to implement. Another problem that might make this system not easy to implement is that, not everyone will understand the issues on hand and complexities surrounding them. If we want people to understand the complexities of such issues, then who will inform or educate them? Will it also be possible to verify whether issues raised by every member of the community are biased or not. As a result of the realities surrounding direct democracy, it is very difficult to implement it on its own.

Nonetheless, technological advancements such as speedy communication and the expansion of the internet may favor direct democracy. Since there are many channels of communication nowadays and people can interact easily through these channels, and present their issues or reaction towards government policies. A clear example that shows it is possible to implement direct democracy through the available technologies is how Muslim community in Libya responded during the recent Arab uprising. They used social media to air their views, spreading the news like a lightning, and within no time, the whole country was signing the same song. The same idea can be applied in direct democracy where people can use different channels of communication to raise their concerned issues aimed at running the government. The only problem with this idea is that not all people are conversant with the current channels of communication. In fact, a number of people are not using social media as well as the internet. Some countries also have not fully embraced the trend of technology advancement.

Direct democracy used to perform better in old days than what it can do today because the modern political units are remarkably different in terms of scale as compared to traditional ones. Direct democracy succeeded in the small city states whereas representative democracy has developed in national states containing a large population and geographical areas. For this reason, it would be very difficult for all citizens to participate directly in politics in the modern context. Another reason why direct democracy flourished well traditionally is because citizenship was defined differently from the modern democracy. For instance, in the Athenian direct democracy, only a small portion of adult males were citizens, whereas foreigners, slaves, and women did not have political rights (Setala, 2006, p. 152). In modern democracy, citizenship is defined inclusively, that is, there is an equal worth of everyone, thus increasing the number of the participants tremendously. This makes it difficult for a large population to participant in a direct democracy.

Accountability in representative democracies takes place in two levels. The first level refers to the government’s accountability to the legislators, and the second to the legislators’ (governments) accountability to the citizens (Setala, 2006, p. 160). Governments’ accountability to the legislators means that they are supposed to justify their policies at the legislative forum, while the elected representatives’ accountability for the electorate refers to the situation whereby both governments and the legislatures are expected to justify their views to the citizens.

The main characteristics of representative democracy include electoral representatives as this form of democracy finds it difficult for a big number of people to come together to decide every issue; regular elections that allow voters new representatives or leaders if they are not satisfied with the current ones; and bicameral legislature as found in most representative democracies in which there is a national parliament or legislature with two chambers or houses (Setala, 2006, p. 158).

There is two different concept of trust between the government and the citizens that are established through direct democracy. The two types of truths include citizens’ low trust in government and politicians’ low trust in citizens (Frey, 1994, p. 340). In the first truth, citizens think that politicians will only implement their preferences due to their past experiences with oppressive authoritarian governments. In the second, politicians are not willing to share their power with the population; therefore, they find it difficult to imagine that the citizens are capable of participating in decision making.


There are many differences that exist between direct democracy and representative democracy. The main difference being that, in representative democracy, the citizens elect their representatives to run the government as their agents, while in direct democracy allows individual right to direct participation without involving someone else on your behave. In the modern democracy, it is difficult to use one form of democracy and as a result, many nations have embraced the two types of democracy. In this regard, each form of democracy subdues the negatives of the other. However, many people consider representative democracy as the most appropriate in the modern democracy, but integration of the two is much better.

Although direct democracy is viewed as the most normative ideal, it is sometime difficult to implement to the complexities such as large population and geographical areas. The growing technological complexity of political issues sometimes demands expertise in making decision, thus the need for representative democracy. However, direct democracy is becoming increasingly popular nowadays as a compliment for purely representative democracy (Frey, 1994, p. 362). For instance, in the U.S. a greater population lives in a city or state with popular referendum or initiative (Matsusaka, 2004, p. 17). Direct democracy is also becoming popular in Europe as several European countries have held referendums on the new European constitution. The critical factor that is influencing modern direct democracy is to increase the voters’ or people’s influence over policy decisions.  

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