What is a representative democracy?
By definition, it is a form of government where every individual receives direct representation for issues that are under debate. Unlike a direct democracy, which would require every person to vote on every issue up for consideration, representatives are able to vote for specific districts or areas on their behalf.
Regular elections are held to determine who these representatives will be. Specific issues, especially those that affect local governing, are often put to a vote of the people as well. This allows everyone to have a voice in the government if they wish to have one. At the same time, representatives continue to vote for everyone based on majority votes for what the best interests of the community may be.
Here are the disadvantages and advantages of a representative democracy as they are practically applied.
List of the Advantages of a Representative Democracy
1. It controls the actions of elected officials.
Elected officials within a representative democracy are expected to act in the best interests of their district. They have the freedom to vote their conscious if they wish. Their district has the ability to do the same. If a district believes that their representative is not acting in their own best interest, then measures are in place, such as a recall election, to remove that person from office. Elected officials are given specific term lengths as well, which allows people to vote someone out of office if they disagree with their votes.
2. A representative democracy keeps governing simple.
Democracy is a form of government where everyone has a voice. When it is employed directly, the cost of maintaining that democracy can be quite high. Every vote would require the participation of the entire electorate. Every assignment would be forced through a rigorous approval method that involved everyone. By electing representatives to handle these affairs, decisions happen faster. Actions can be implemented with lower costs. In return, the government becomes more responsive when society needs to access its resources.
3. It does not remove the voice of the people.
In a representative democracy, people can choose to vote or choose not to vote. Some nations may mandate votes on specific times and offer penalties to those who do not vote, but an individual can still choose to cast a blank ballot in many instances. People can also write or send emails to their representatives. They can call their elected officials or make an appointment to visit with them in-person. In many representative democracies, people are even permitted to protest as a form of communication.
4. There is a regard for local, cultural, and ethnic issues in government.
Many forms of government seek to create autonomy by implementing a common set of laws, rules, or regulations. Within a representative democracy, autonomy is created by the common bonds of society. Different cultures, ethnicities, and local priorities can all be represented within the national government. Some voices may be louder than others, but all voices have the chance to be heard. That means the general population can be accurately represented within the government instead of being forced to conform.
5. It allows the people to control the progress of the government.
In a representative democracy, it is the people who have the final say on matters, not the government. Representatives may make decisions that have an immediate impact on short-term matters, but it is the people who have control over long-term matters. If the people don’t like the direction their country is going, then they have the chance to elect new officials who may make different decisions in the next election cycle.
6. Everyone benefits.
Some people are highly engaged in the political process within a representative democracy. Some people are not engaged with the process at all. From a governing standpoint, the activity levels do not matter. Every person receives the same level of representation, whether they choose to vote or not vote.
7. It is a form of government that operates efficiently.
A representative democracy operates using a system of checks and balances. This prevents one branch of the government from obtaining more power than the other branches. Although dissent is frequent and often between the various branches of government, the structure invites discussion and compromise instead of declarations and an expectation to follow. A representative democracy requires people to meet their obligations as a representative to work properly, but when that happens, the government can work with high levels of efficiency.
8. A representative democracy ensures direct representation.
Although some politicians serve their own needs, this form of government solves the issue that was such a problem for the colonies before the Revolutionary War. The issue the colonies faced wasn’t taxation. It was the fact that they were being taxed without having any representation in the British Parliament. Britain had allowed for a measure of self-governing, but demanded compensation through taxation without giving the colonies a voice. By creating a government with representatives, every person is ensured direct representation to the government.
List of the Disadvantages of a Representative Democracy
1. Representative democracies encourage polarization.
It can be uncomfortable to compromise. It can be frustrating to have conversations with people who think you’re always wrong and they’re always right. This type of polarization is common within representative democracies, which creates a unique population movement. Families tend to settle into neighborhoods where there is less conflict, which means their representatives will typically have the same mindset. Because of this, gridlock happens in the government because no one really wants to budge from their stance. If they did, it could result in a lost election during the next cycle.
2. It requires communication skills to be effective.
For a representative to truly represent their district, they must be in constant contact with their constituents. Without open communication, it may be difficult to represent the needs of the district to the government. This is also necessary because most representatives travel great distances to handle the needs of governing at the national level. In the United States, that means representatives must travel to Washington, D.C. for their duties. That could be over 4,000 miles away. Only a proactive representative would be able to stay on top of locally important issues from such a great distance.
3. Representative democracies are based on trust before anything else.
For a representative democracy to function properly, the people who have elected their representative must trust that they will represent local needs to the government. Because the structure of representation is often loosely defined, it is possible for politicians to represent their own interests to the government instead of representing the interests of those who elected them. If a recall is not possible, it could be up to 6 years before that person could be replaced with someone who had more integrity.
4. It isn’t cheap to run a representative democracy.
It is true that a representative democracy is cheaper to operate than a direct democracy. There are other forms of government, however, that are even cheaper than this one. Nearly $2 billion is spent on Presidential elections in the United States, which is a constitutional federal representative democracy, every 4 years. Elections held for the Senate and the House of Representatives are multi-million dollar affairs. Then there are state and local elections that must be held as well. In total, when all elections are considered, Americans pay over $2 trillion for their government.
5. This form of government encourages deceit.
The goal of a politician within a representative democracy is to get elected as a representative. That provides the incentive to the politician to say or do anything, so they can win the election. Many politicians will offer blanket promises to the general public to gain enough votes to win. Then, once elected, they are no longer bound to the promises that they offered. The people may be upset, call the politician a liar, and even begin the process of forcing them out of office. None of that matters. Once the politician is elected, they can begin to influence legislation for almost any purpose.
6. It takes a voice away from the minority.
In a representative democracy, legislation is based on the will of the majority. That means the voice of the minority, though heard, is often discarded. That can be problematic if the voice of the majority is not morally correct. There are numerous instances in U.S. history where the minority had a stronger moral stance on specific issues of policy. From the Japanese internment camps to the concept of manifest destiny, it is clear that the majority isn’t always in the right. Yet, because the government rules from the majority, that is the course of action that is taken.
7. A representative democracy can discourage participation.
When people don’t care who represents them to their government, then there is no incentive to participate in an election. That means a true reflection of the majority may not be achieved by the election, but the results are what form the foundation of legislation. In some situations, if the minority turns out more than the majority for an election, they can influence the results in such a way that the will of the people is countered. It takes involvement for a representative democracy to be accurate and that does not always occur.
8. Larger delegations may swing policy shifts more than smaller populations.
Under the current representative structure of the United States, each state is awarded two senators and a delegation of representatives that are based on the population levels. That means larger states are allowed to elect more representatives to the House than smaller states. Since 1911, the total number of representatives allowed in the U.S. is 435. A populous state like California has more than 50 representatives, but a state like Montana or Alaska may have only 1. If push comes to shove, California is going to have more influence on national affairs than Montana will.
9. It can still be influenced by one specific branch of government.
Representative democracies have loopholes and legislation problems that make it possible to go around the structure of representation. An example of this in the United States is the concept of the Executive Order. The President is elected by the people, but an Executive Order creates policy decisions that an elected representative of the people have no say over. In the History of the United States, all but one President (William Henry Harrison) has issued at least one Executive Order. Franklin Roosevelt issued over 3,700 of them.
The disadvantages and advantages of a representative democracy indicate that this form of government is generally one that is fair and impartial. It keeps most of the power within the hands of the people while still allowing the government to operate quickly and efficiently whenever it is needed. It may be imperfect and there will always be people who try to take advantage of this structure, but at the end of the day, it works because people and politicians are working together.