Representative Democracy: Definition, Pros, and Cons

Government Created by the People, for the People

Cartoon of people passing large dice with yes or no choice
Democracy Means Representing the Will of the People. Ikon Images / Getty Images

Representative democracy is a form of government in which the people elect officials to create laws and policy on their behalf. Nearly 60% of the world’s countries employ a form of government based on representative democracy, including the United States (a democratic republic), the United Kingdom is (a constitutional monarchy), and France (a unitary state). Representative democracy is sometimes called indirect democracy.

Representative Democracy Definition

In a representative democracy, the people elect officials to create and vote on laws, policies, and other matters of government on their behalf. In this manner, representative democracy is the opposite of direct democracy, in which the people themselves vote on every law or policy considered at every level of government. Representative democracy is typically employed in larger countries where the sheer number of citizens involved would make direct democracy unmanageable. 

Common characteristics of representative democracy include:

  • The powers of the elected representatives are defined by a constitution which establishes the basic laws, principles, and framework of the government.
  • The constitution may provide for some forms of limited direct democracy, such as recall elections and ballot initiative elections.
  • Elected representatives may also have the power to select other government leaders, such as a prime minister or president.
  • An independent judiciary body, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, may have the power to declare laws enacted by the representatives to be unconstitutional.

In some representative democracies with bicameral legislatures, one chamber is not elected by the people. For example, members of the British Parliament’s House of Lords and the Senate of Canada obtain their positions through appointment, heredity, or official function.

Representative democracy stands out in sharp contrast to forms of government such as totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism, which allow the people little-to-no elected representation.

Representative Democracy in the U.S.

In the United States, representative democracy is employed at both the national government and state government levels. At the national government level, the people elect the president and the officials who represent them in the two chambers of Congress—the House of Representatives and the Senate. At the state government level, the people elect the governor and members of the state legislatures who rule according to the state constitutions.

The President of the United States, the Congress, and the federal courts share powers reserved to the national government by the U.S. Constitution. In creating a functional system called “federalism,” the U.S. Constitution also shares certain political powers with the states.

Pros and Cons of Representative Democracy

Representative democracy is the most prevalent form of government. As such, it has both advantages and disadvantages to the government and the people.

Pros

Efficient: A single elected official represents the desires of a large number of people. In the United States, for example, just two U.S. Senators represent all of the people in their states. By conducting a limited number of national elections, countries with representative democracies save time and money, which can then be devoted to other public needs.

Empowers the People: The people of each of the country’s political subdivisions (state, district, region, etc.) choose the representatives who will make their voices heard by the national government. Should those representatives fail to meet the expectations of their constituents, the voters can replace them in the next election.

Encourages Participation: When people are confident that they have a say in their government's decisions, they are more likely to remain aware of issues affecting their country and to vote as a way of making their opinions on those issues heard.

Cons

Not Always Reliable: The votes of elected officials in a representative democracy may not always reflect the will of the people. The officials are not bound by law to vote the way the people who elected them want them to vote. Unless term limits apply to the official in question, the only options available to dissatisfied constituents are to vote the representative out of office in the next regular election or, in some cases, to demand a recall election.

Can Become Inefficient: Governments shaped by representative democracy may develop into massive bureaucracies, which are notoriously slow to take action, especially on momentous issues.

Can Invite Corruption: Candidates may misrepresent their stances on issues or policy goals in order to achieve political power. In office, politicians may act in the service of personal financial gain rather than for the benefit of their constituents (sometimes to the direct detriment of their constituents).

In the final analysis, a representative democracy should truly result in a government that is created “by the people, for the people.” However, its success in doing so depends on the people’s freedom to express their wishes to their representatives and the willingness of those representatives to act accordingly.

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