The Other I

February 26, 2010

Direct vs representative democracy

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:00 pm

This is one of those topics that would have bored my teenage mind in a political science course.

But now I’m worried about it.  Representative democracy is what we have theoretically in the States and here in Britain.  We elect representatives to whom we give a mandate to work out the best possible course of action for the people they represent.  We don’t elect them as cyphers.  We expect them to inform themselves, to think about the issues, to negotiate, whenever possible to integrate the best policies from all sides, and yes – to compromise.

In a direct democracy, the people vote directly in a referendum or issue presented on polling day, and the majority wins.  But there is another way in which direct democracy is increasingly displacing representative democracy and that is through opinion polls which give almost instantaneous feedback to politicians about where the majority of people stand.

It would be ridiculous to argue that politicians should not know what voters think and want.  But a wholesale displacement of an independent role of politicians  by the immediate will of the people seems to me to be seriously dangerous.

Are we able to be sufficiently well-informed on every subject of political importance to by-pass the experience and knowledge of politician  (and hopefully their professional advisers)?  Do we not risk the loudest opinion winning more often than the carefully reasoned or thought through?  Are we not going to increase the ideological splits which seem to tolerate so little compromise?

It’s not just issues like abortion, torture,  the death penalty or foreign wars that separate us.  There are questions about the best way to deal with the budget deficits, with unemployment, with banking rules, with the environment, with the cost of  medicare and social security as the proportion of elderly increases in our societies.

Do we really want to choose solutions based on the results of mass opinion polls on all these critical issues?  Personally, I don’t feel well enough informed about them all to feel confident that the entire country should do what I think is best.


  1. Hi Terry,

    There could be a sense in which ‘direct’ and ‘representative’ democracy are not so much two alternative types or flavours of the same thing (ie democracy), as two rather different things, resting on different assumptions.

    The idea of direct democracy for example seems to imply that ‘democracy’ can be looked at more abstractly than the idea of ‘representative’ democracy assumes it can. Democracy is not just about reflecting the views of the electorate in how an entity (eg a nation) is run. It is also about the mechanics of how that entity is run, who or what holds what power and so on. Democracy therefore rests not only on the soundness of the rules (eg who can vote, secrecy, frequency etc) but also on the effectiveness of the institutions which run the entity and also guarantee and accommodate its democratic processes.

    Direct democracy will often have its place in a mature democracy, but that place is typically defined and constrained either by the constitution or by the decision of the elected representatives.

    But it can be a dangerous thing to use other than sparingly because it can falsely appear to be ‘more democratic’ or a ‘purer’ expression of the will of the electorate than representative democracy. Once a country has a referendum on X it can be harder to resist calls for referenda on Y and Z. Yet the idea of a referendum itself relies on institutions: who runs them? who funds them? who decides the issues? who words the question(s)? who decides what happens next?

    Imagine what could have happened if at the height of the UK parliamentary expenses scandal a referendum had been held on the question: should parliament be abolished?

    Thanks again,
    thinking makes it so


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — February 28, 2010 @ 5:15 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your pithy additions to my concerns. It occurs to me that your points also are some of the reasons why democracy can’t be introduced into a society simply holding free elections, no?


      Comment by theotheri — March 1, 2010 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

      • Yes indeed, and there’s also the question of the size of electoral majorities. My adopted country, South Africa, has principles and institutions as good as most democratic countries, but it suffers from one interesting structural flaw: it is very hard to see how the ANC government will get voted out any time soon, such is its commanding majority.

        There is little wrong with the ANC’s hold on power from the perspective of the principles of universal suffrage, but it is not good for democracy. Lord Acton said: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We probably need to modify this to something like: Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and prolonged power can get pretty scary.

        For democracy to function it is not only important to be able to vote governments out of power, it is also important that this actually happens frequently enough.

        Thanks, Chris.


        Comment by Chris Lawrence — March 6, 2010 @ 9:31 am | Reply

        • It has occurred to me as I thought about your comment that democracy is actually quite fragile. You describe the problems that arise when governments, even by popular vote, are in office for interminable periods. America, on the other hand, seems in recent years to be increasingly handicapped by gridlock. The country is split among in half, and though governments and parties in power do change, instead of reaching a compromise in the center, we so often seem simply determined to stop the other party from achieving anything effective.

          I think Obama has the character which allows him to compromise. I don’t know if he has time to develop the political skill to achieve it.

          Once again, than you for your thoughts that are so productive. Terry


          Comment by theotheri — March 9, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

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