Representative Democracy: Yesterday’s Model?

Barry Gilheany asks if representative democracy is no longer fit for purpose in the modern world.

In this article I examine the efficacy of representative democracy in terms of if and how it really delivers democracy to the members of whatever political community it deliberates on behalf of. As a measure of its success, I discuss participation in contemporary representative democracies and takes account of the contrasting concepts of liberal democracy that have developed either side of the Atlantic Ocean. I conclude by giving qualified approval to representative democracy in terms of democratic outcomes delivered.

Democracy can most simply be understood as a procedure for taking decisions in any group, association or society, whereby all members have an equal right to have a say and to make their opinions count. Democracy is based on the following principal precepts: all members have interests that are affected by collective decisions; all adults are capable of reaching a view about what the optimum decision would be, both for themselves and for the association in its entirety; in the long run the best decisions are taken where all views are publicly expressed and debated; where a single agreed outcome does not emerge from deliberations, decisions should be taken by a vote of all participating members and the principle of ‘one person, one vote, one value’ embodies the overarching value that all persons are of equal worth (Beetham, 2005).

However there have been millennial old disputes about the meaning of democracy. For democracy is a concept before it is a fact and because it is a concept it has no single, fixed meaning (Arblaster, 2002). In the words of the philosopher W.B. Gallie, some concepts like democracy, liberty, justice and human rights are ‘essentially contested,’ whereas others are not.[1] Anthony H. Birch replaces Gallies’ term ‘essentially contested by ‘currently contestable’ on the grounds that Gallies’ distinction between concepts that are ‘essentially contested’ and those that are not is an ahistorical distinction (Birch, 2007). In its Greek origins, the word ‘democracy’ literally means ‘rule by the people’. ‘Democracy’ in the modern sense of the term came into vogue in the 19th century to describe a system of representative government in which the representatives are chosen by free, competitive elections and most adult citizens are entitled to vote (Birch: p.110).

If democracy means, in shorthand, “rule of the people”; two linguistic issues arise. Firstly, does the ‘people’ mean the whole adult population or only those who own enough property to give them a ‘stake in the country’ (Birch: p.111); a situation which pertained in many countries before the granting of universal suffrage. Are the ‘people’ an undifferentiated mass of humanity not separated by territorial boundaries; a grouping of atomized individuals within a given territory who associate with each other purely for the purpose of interest maximization or are they segmented into diverse and overlapping groupings based on class, gender, ethnicity, profession or other self-proclaimed entity who are united by a common allegiance to a system and symbols of governance. To come up with a value-free description of ‘the people’ is impossible but the latter definition comes closest in modern liberal democracies.

The second linguistic conundrum relates to ‘rule’. If ‘ruling’ means the arriving at key decisions, resulting in binding laws and regulations upon society then (apart from in referendums), only a small of people can be ‘rulers’ in modern complex societies. So, in this context ‘ruling’ must be interpreted in the looser sense of deciding the rulers and having input into their decision-making. But how loose should this sense be? Must it be paramount in a democracy that governmental decisions, though made by only a small minority of politicians, reflect nevertheless the popular will? How can the popular will be discerned?

All established democracies have political systems based on the principle that sovereignty resides in the national parliament or assembly. The United States is exceptional in having a political system based on the principle inheres in the people. The US Constitution declares that ‘We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution. Members of Congress, Senators, the President and judges all supposedly derive their authority from the people. Based on the philosophies and treatises of the Founding Fathers of the American republic; Americans have tended to define their democracy in three different ways: a populist way, in terms of popular sovereignty; a pluralist way, in terms of competition between sections and pressure groups; and an institutional way, in terms of a set of institutions and processes and constitutionally divined federal separation of powers between Presidency, Supreme Court and Congress. Running right through the discourse of American democracy is wariness of the motives and behaviour of politicians and the concomitant need for frequent elections (Birch: pp.112-113).

The great majority of democratic theorists in Europe have eschewed US-style populist and pluralist approaches to politics. They have defined democracy in institutional and procedural terms, or parliamentary government with free competitive elections and a wide franchise. However, the normative theories they have deployed to justify democracy diverge appreciably. French attitudes to democracy share with the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau the assumption that democracy is to be advocated for in collective terms rather than in the individualistic terms found in the United States and Britain. Rousseau thought that in an ideal polity individuals should set aside personal interests when they engaged in politics, and commit themselves instead to the communal welfare. He postulated that the ‘real wills’, as opposed to ‘particular will’ would merge into a consensus that he defined as the ‘general will’. Rousseau’s democratic credentials are highly questionable. He did not believe in representative government, because he did not think that people’s wills could be represented by others. His ideal centred on direct self-government in small communities, and even here he did appear to advocate the involvement of all, or even a majority of, adults in political decisions, writing approvingly of the government of Geneva where less than ten per cent of its residents had the right to participate. However, his idea of civic virtue has influenced thinking on popular government in subsequent generations (Birch: p.117).

Despite the wording of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, French revolutionaries did not share the American belief in popular sovereignty. They asserted the sovereignty of the French nations and believed that the National Assembly constituted the will of the nation. The French view of the elected representative as an independent law maker, as opposed to being an intermediary for their constituents or for sectional interests has generally been accepted in Europe. French constitutional provisions that prohibited mandates and instructions were subsequently incorporated into the constitutions of most West European countries (Birch: p.118).

In Britain, which has no written constitution, the same view of the elected representative is institutionalized in the constitutional doctrine that sovereignty resides in Parliament, there being no mention of the people, and also in the conventions that protect the privileges of Members of Parliament (MPs). Writing in 1929, the political theorist A.D. Lindsay of Oxford said in his book The Essentials of Democracy[2] that ‘The purpose of representative government is to maintain and preserve different points of view, in order to make effective discussion possible … But this belief that everyone has something to contribute does not mean that what everyone has to say is of equal value.’ (Birch: pp.119-124).

A representative form of democracy is thus one in which members of a legislative body are delegated by the citizenry of the nation to arrive at decisions which accord as far as practicable with the agreed will of the nation and which also reflect the preferences of the constituents who elect the members of the legislature. In Western Europe a consensus has emerged among theorists of democracy that it is desirable that elected representatives deliberate more on behalf of national interests than sectional interests while not ignoring the views of their constituents. Representative democracy differs from oligarchies (where powerful groups take decisions for everyone else) in that public office is open to all; selection for office is by election; there is freedom of expression and a pluralism of independent media contributing to vibrant public debate; there is public access to official information; there is free associational life for citizens; there are many different channels of upward influence; citizens have the right to vote directly on constitutional change and rights are enforced by an independent judiciary (Beetham: pp.6-7).

Representative democracies depend upon a continuously active citizen body if they are to function in a democratic way (Beetham: p.7). To determine therefore whether representative democracies are really democratic in the fullest sense of the term; it is necessary to examine the extent of political participation in contemporary democracies. The main forms of political participation are as follows:

1. voting in local or national elections

2. voting in referendums

3. canvassing or campaigning in elections

4. active membership of a political party

5. active membership of a pressure group

6. taking part in political demonstrations, rent strikes in public housing, and similar activities seeking to change public policy

7. civil disobedience, e.g. refusing to pay taxes or obey a conscription order

8. membership of government advisory committees

9. membership of consumers’ councils for publicly owned industries

10. service user involvement in the implementation of healthcare and social policies

11. community action relating, for example, to housing or environmental issues in the locality (Birch: p.145)

A popular participatory democracy is a system in which decisions are taken and policies, as a result of the widest possible free and open discussion. The current pattern of media ownership in Britain whereby most mass communication organs outside of public service broadcasting are dominated by a few millionaire owners and a few large conglomerate companies hardly contributes to a level playing field of political discussion in that the majority of daily and Sunday newspapers extol a range of typical right-wing opinions that extend beyond purely party politics (Arblaster: p.92).

Another macro-issue which is potentially detrimental to the health of representative democracies is inequality in society. There is general agreement among democratic theorists that participation in the activities listed above enhances individual efficacy and creates a body of ethically and politically aware and public-spirited citizens. However, this view ignores the existence of a strong social bias in the practice of political participation. Repeated survey evidence demonstrates an explicit correlation between education, income and social status on the one and voting and pressure group activity on the other. For the poor and the badly educated, who it might be assumed have most to gain from political reforms, are generally the most apathetic and least involved in politics (Birch: p.147). Given such bias, can the system be said to be fully democratic?

Related to this is the questionable assumption, deriving from Aristotle’s opinion of there always being rich and poor within society; that their interests would always be opposed and that it was the business of government to persuade them to co-exist, that all interests are automatically legitimate and compromises must always be made to accommodate them. Today not everyone accepts that such divisions are immutable and that the spectrum of lobbies and special interest groups represents all the legitimate concerns of society. For example, there is supposedly a general interest in the quality of health and education provision in society as everybody is affected by service delivery in these two major areas of public policy. However, the most influential lobbies in these areas represent professional group interests – doctors, nurses and teachers- or specific groups of long-term patients and may not effectively represent future patients and parents of children at school or college. Thus, there is some validity in Rousseau’s concerns about the fragmentation of society into a collection of interest groups and the consequent impairment of the development of a common will or common interest (Arblaster: pp.73-75).

How then can representative democracy be made more egalitarian and participative? Compulsory voting, as in Australia, Belgium and Italy, and mass membership of political parties, as in Britain, are two tactics which could raise the exceptionally low turnout for national elections in the US. Peter Bachrach[3], Carole Pateman[4] and Robert A. Dahl[5] advocate industrial democracy in the grounds that since participation in key political decisions on the national level must remain limited and that the way to make the United States a more democratic society is to make the managers of large corporations legally accountable to the workers and giving industrial workers a share in decision-making at their workplace would increase their general political efficacy. In Britain the last decades of the last century saw the innovation of Community Health Councils, tenants’ associations in municipal housing who have to be consulted under the terms of the 1980 Housing Act and community relations forums with BME representation among other ‘client’ consultative initiatives. While arguments against wider citizen participation in politics tend to be conservative, there is also a radical argument to the effect that many forms of participation tend to co-opt people into the system and thus blunt the edge of protest. A general point to be made is that all channels of communications between citizens and public authorities are or quickly become two-way channels, which can be used by both sides (Birch: pp.146-151).

Another development has been the increased use of the referendum device in both the USA and Europe. In the British Isles, the two most sensational referendum outcomes in the last two years were the decision by UK voters by a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union in June 2016 and the decision by 66% of votes cast to remove the anti-abortion Eighth Amendment from the constitution of the Irish Republic which had been inserted by a similar percentage of a much lower electoral turn out in 1983. Previously, in May 2015 electors in the Republic of Ireland voted to insert the right of gay people to marry into the Constitution. In September 2014 85% of the electorate in Scotland voted in the referendum on whether the Scots should become independent; an exercise which generated exceptionally high levels of civic and political engagement in Scotland.

In 2005 voters in France and the Netherlands decided to reject the draft constitution for the European Union. Devolution arrangements for Scotland and Wales were approved in referenda in both countries in 1999 and the Belfast Agreement was endorsed in 1998 on both sides of the Irish border in simultaneous referenda. In 1978 more Californians voted to adopt Proposition 13 in California, a proposal to cut property taxes by more than a half passed by a two-to-one majority in the referendum than in any of the candidate contests on the ballot paper. This clearly represents a move towards participatory democracy though not one that has received universal approval from academics who favour wider participation in politics. 

To conclude, the argument for representative models of democracy rests on the arguments made by Aristotle in Politeia; he saw democracy as an essential part of his mixed-government polity but on its own it would destroy the political community as pursuing the impossible goal of direct rule by all (in the guise of the General Will) would have led to untrammeled rule by the mob. However, if there is no democratic element, a state will be despotic or oligarchic (Crick, 1982) Good government must involve rationality experience, expertise and not just opinion – but must be subject to the consent of the governed (Crick, p.72). In the ideal representative democracy, the legislator deliberates on behalf of the common interest as well as the interests of their constituents. But there will always be room for the expansion of the norms of democracy beyond the purely procedural. With the worrying emergence of Trumpian style illiberal or authoritarian democracies in Hungary, Brazil, Poland, Turkey, Philippines and, arguably, Italy and Israel this task is all the more urgent to save the liberal representative model of democracy which for all its imperfections (to reflect the crooked timber of imperfectible humanity) has stood (maybe up until now) stood the test of time.


Arblaster, A. (2002) Democracy Third Edition Buckingham: Open University Press

Beetham, D. (2005) Democracy: A Beginner’s Guide Oxford: One World Publications

Birch, A.H. (2007) The Concepts and Theories of Modern Democracy Third Edition Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Crick, B. (1982) In Defence of Politics Second Pelican Edition Harmondsworth: Penguin

[1]Gallie, W.B. (1955-56) ‘Essentially contested concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56: 167-98)

[2]Lindsay, A.D. [1929] (1935) The Essentials of Democracy London: Oxford University Press

[3]Bachrach, P. [1967] (1969) The Theory of Democratic Elitism London: University of London Press

[4]Pateman C. (1970) Participation and Democratic Theory Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[5]Dahl, R.A. (1985) A Preface to Economic Democracy Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.

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