Representative Democracy: Definition, Pros, and Cons

Political signs on a large lawn.

Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MD / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Representative democracy is a form of government in which the people elect officials to create laws and policy on their behalf. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s countries employ a form of government based on representative democracy, including the U.S. (a democratic republic), the UK (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 that 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.

Brief History

The ancient Roman Republic was the first state in the western world known to have a representative form of government. Today’s representative democracies more closely resemble the Roman than the Greek models of democracy, because it vested supreme power in the people and their elected representatives. 

In 13th century Britain, Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester is considered one of the fathers of representative government. In 1258, de Montfort held a famous parliament that stripped King Henry III of unlimited authority. A second de Montfort parliament in 1265 incorporated ordinary citizens. During the 17th century, the English Parliament pioneered some of the ideas and systems of liberal democracy culminating in the Glorious Revolution and passage of the Bill of Rights of1689.

The American Revolution led to the creation of the United States Constitution in 1787, providing for a legislative House of Representatives directly elected by the people every two years. Until the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, U.S. Senators were not directly elected by the people. Women, men who owned no property, and Black persons did not gain the right to vote until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Representative Democracy in the U.S.

In the U.S., 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, 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.


It's efficient: A single elected official represents the desires of a large number of people. In the U.S., for example, just two 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.

It's empowering: 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.

It 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 vote as a way of making their opinions on those issues heard.


It's 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.

It can become inefficient: Governments shaped by representative democracy may develop into massive bureaucracies, which are notoriously slow to take action, especially on momentous issues.

It can invite corruption: Candidates may misrepresent their stances on issues or policy goals in order to achieve political power. While 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.


  • Desilver, Drew. "Despite global concerns about democracy, more than half of countries are democratic." Pew Research Center, 14 May 2019,
  • Kateb, George. "The Moral Distinctiveness of Representative Democracy." Institute of Education Sciences, 3 September 1979,
  • "Lesson 1: The Importance of Representative Democracy." Unicam Focus, Nebraska Legislature, 2020,
  • Russell, Greg. "Constitutionalism: America & Beyond." U.S. Department of State, 2020,
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Longley, Robert. "Representative Democracy: Definition, Pros, and Cons." ThoughtCo, Aug. 3, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, August 3). Representative Democracy: Definition, Pros, and Cons. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Representative Democracy: Definition, Pros, and Cons." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).