That poster you walk past on the way home, of the politician wearing an awkward smile, clutching a puppy and asking for your vote, is a pretty clear sign that you live in a representative democracy. Most people do. But, like some of the laws you have to follow, you might be unsure of exactly what this term means, or of the different forms representative democracy can take.
What is a representative democracy?
If your country holds elections it’s almost certainly a representative democracy. That means it’s a system of government in which citizens elect representatives who propose and vote on legislation or policy initiatives on their behalf. It’s a form of indirect democracy, as opposed to a direct democracy, in which people vote directly on policy initiatives.
Democracy matters. Help us protect it. Donate
Representative democracy gives power to representatives who are elected by citizens. As you may know, political parties have become an important element of representative democracy. They give us a broad-stroke sense of what a candidate stands for based on which party he or she belongs to. Although we still vote on people when we head to the polls, in reality we are really voting for which political party – and which platform of policy ideas – we want to represent us.
How does a representative democracy work?
In a representative democracy, people generally vote for other people – representatives – rather than on legislative proposals directly. These representatives then formulate, propose, debate and vote on the laws and policies of our country. They’re supposed to do so in a manner they think we would be happy with. That is, they represent our interests. This unburdens us from having to brush up on the finer points of law and policy, and instead gives these responsibilities to someone whose job it is to be expert on these issues. At least in theory.
Representative democracy is so popular because direct democracy is just too cumbersome, and people just too busy, to make it work. However, there are still remnants of direct democracy within representative democracies. Switzerland is often called a semi-direct democracy. Representatives handle the day-to-day administration and decision making, but citizens can propose changes to the constitution or request that a referendum be held on any law. Other representative democracies also allow referendums to decide important issues (hello, Brexit). But generally speaking, direct democracy has gone the way of the dodo.
Which countries have a representative democracy?
Chances are, you live in a representative democracy. A majority of people live under representative democracy in one form or another. All EU member states are representative democracies, as are almost all countries in the Western Hemisphere. If you live in a democracy, you could say with near certainty that you live in a representative democracy. The majority of the world’s countries use this system of government.
According to the Democracy Index, put out by the publisher of The Economist magazine, there are 110 countries in the world that are either full democracies, flawed democracies, or some form of hybrid regime. Essentially all of these democracies are representative democracies. The remainder of the surveyed countries are considered authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea, the Middle East states or other countries run by an autocrat.
But not all representative democracies are the same. Some are parliamentary constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom or the Netherlands, while others are representative republics like Germany or the United States. Even countries that are de facto dictatorships maintain mechanisms of representative democracy. Russia comes to mind. And a representative democracy can either be liberal – where laws protect not only our human rights and other values, but also limit the power of our representatives – or illiberal, in which elected representatives, once in power, can more or less rule as they please.
What are the pros and cons of representative democracy?
We’re busy people. We have jobs to go to, kids to care for, the latest Apple products to salivate over. It’s unreasonable to expect the average person to have the time necessary to understand the ins and outs of governance or even the contents of a single piece of legislation. That’s the biggest advantage of representative democracy – we can delegate this responsibility to others whose job it is to understand these things, and then vote with our interests in mind.
Representatives can also aggregate the various interests of their constituents to shape laws and policy in a way that gives the greatest benefit to the most people. While we may not get everything we want in a law, we won’t be completely forgotten. It’s also more efficient to delegate legislating to representatives rather than requiring people to head to the polls to vote on each and every bill or policy proposal.
For representative democracy to work properly, it is complemented by participatory democracy. This means that citizens, through civil society groups and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are still able to communicate with and influence their government between elections. NGOs fulfill a number of important functions, including informing people about matters of public interest, providing them with channels through which they can speak to their political representatives between elections, and holding the government to account when it breaks the law. The freedom of NGOs to carry out these functions and the freedom of people to associate with NGOs are vital components of liberal representative democracy.
That said, representative democracy is not without its drawbacks. It necessarily concentrates power in the hands of a few people, thereby giving them ultimate control over the form and substance of our laws. Could legislation be crafted in a way that gives special benefits to representatives, their family or friends? It’s happened too many times to count. Elected representatives are also difficult to reign in between elections, meaning they could pass laws that make us unhappy, or unfairly favor themselves or others, and we could have to wait years to hold them to account for it.
Should representative democracy be the future for all countries?
Most of us would agree that democracy, while not perfect, is the fairest system of government. It tends to do the best job of protecting the values most of us hold, like equality, human rights, and equal application of the law. And representative democracy is probably the best form of democracy to achieve this.
Citizens still maintain ultimate control over their government through elections, during which they can choose the people and parties that represent them. (Photo: Santeri Viinamäki/CC)
Winston Churchill once quipped that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” In short, it’s the best we’ve got. Representative democracy gives people the advantages of democracy – having a say in the way they are governed, and choosing the people who govern them – without the onus of needing to study each law or policy initiative themselves. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to do this. So it’s helpful to have elected representatives whose job it is to know that stuff.
And, if representatives aren’t doing a good job of this, or not representing our interests, we can choose to replace them during elections. This means we maintain control over the direction of our country and what laws we live under. A few puppies may have to suffer through some uncomfortable photoshoots, but the drawbacks of representative democracy are far fewer than those of other systems of government. And it does the best job of safeguarding our rights and values so that we are able to build and enjoy safe and free societies.
Subscribe to stay informed on democracy & more
-What does representative democracy mean?
A system of government in which citizens elect representatives who propose and vote on legislation or policy initiatives.
-What benefits does representative democracy have?
Control of choosing the government, and thus the country’s laws and policies, still rests with the people. But it delegates the responsibility of being expert on law and policy so citizens can go about their daily lives or choose not to pay much attention to the details.
-What is the future prospective for representative democracy?
Pretty rosy. Representative democracy is now the established form of democracy in the world, and the system of government most people live under. And, when they have it, people don’t seem particularly eager to change it.
The United States is a representative democracy. This means that our government is elected by citizens. Here, citizens vote for their government officials. These officials represent the citizens' ideas and concerns in government.Which is the best definition of representative government? ›
A representative government is one which is made up of politicians who are representative of individuals or groups.What is a representative government simple definition? ›
representative government (countable and uncountable, plural representative governments) A government where citizens elect people to represent them and make laws on their behalf, instead of always voting directly on laws and other government actions.Why is representative democracy essential in modern times? ›
Representative democracy is a kind of democracy in which people elect their leaders. It is also known as indirect democracy or representative government. Representative democracy is important since it helps the people to know their representatives before electing them.Why is representative government important? ›
Representatives are chosen by citizens to serve in legislative bodies and to voice their concerns to the government. The legislature of the United States government is referred to as Congress. The job of Congress is to make the laws and policies of the United States.What are 3 examples of representative democracy? ›
The U.S., Britain and India are all examples of representative democracies (and many other countries worldwide follow this model.) Most representative democracies have multi-party elections.What are characteristics of representative government? ›
The characteristics of a representative government are the election of officials by citizens and execution of political power on behalf of the people. The representatives can also be removed or replaced by the people if necessary.What are the two types of representative government? ›
A liberal democracy is a representative democracy with protection for individual liberty and property by rule of law. An illiberal democracy has weak or no limits on the power of the elected representatives to rule as they please.
By definition, a republic is a representative form of government that is ruled according to a charter, or constitution, and a democracy is a government that is ruled according to the will of the majority.What are the 4 types of Representative? ›
Can someone please explain the four models of representation (delegate, partisan, trustee and mirror).
In America, the acceptance of representative government as a legitimate democratic form has long-standing roots. The argument can be traced back to the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), whose Second Treatise of Government (1690) was widely read by the founders.What is a definition of representative? ›
noun. : one that represents another or others in a special capacity: as. : one that represents a constituency as a member of a legislative or other governing body. specifically : a member of the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress or a state legislature.What is the main purpose of representative? ›
What is a Representative? Also referred to as a congressman or congresswoman, each representative is elected to a two-year term serving the people of a specific congressional district. Among other duties, representatives introduce bills and resolutions, offer amendments and serve on committees.Which is most common form of democracy in today's world? ›
Democracy has various forms like direct and indirect democracy but the most commonly found is Indirect democracy which is also known as representative democracy where the people elect the Representative for their country for a fixed Time Period . Representative democracy is more accountable and answerable.What is the key factor in a representative democracy? ›
The Democratic Charter defines the essential elements of representative democracy in very specific terms, including: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; holding free and fair elections; a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations; separation of powers; independence of the branches of ...What is another term for a representative government? ›
democracy. noungovernment in which people participate. commonwealth. egalitarianism.What are the different types of Representatives? ›
There are three main types: delegate, trustee, and politico.Where did representative democracy start? ›
Representative Democracy in Ancient Rome
In Ancient Rome, rule by the monarch (think, king or emperor) was common until an experiment with a representative democracy emerged.
It recommended the establishment of a new system of representative government. Ceylon thus attained representative government. He campaigned in line with the Liberal Government to install responsible rather than representative government. We don't have a representative government anymore.What are the 3 qualifications of a representative? ›
No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.
A representative sample is a subset of a population that seeks to accurately reflect the characteristics of the larger group. For example, a classroom of 30 students with 15 males and 15 females could generate a representative sample that might include six students: three males and three females.What is the role of democracy in modern society? ›
Cornerstones of democracy include freedom of assembly, association, property rights, freedom of religion and speech, inclusiveness and equality, citizenship, consent of the governed, voting rights, freedom from unwarranted governmental deprivation of the right to life and liberty, and minority rights.What are the 4 elements of democracy? ›
He describes democracy as a system of government with four key elements: i) A system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; ii) Active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; iii) Protection of the human rights of all citizens; and iv) A rule of law in ...When did representative government begin? ›
The House is the only branch of government that has been directly elected by American voters since its formation in 1789.How a representative is elected? ›
A Representative is elected by only those eligible voters residing in the congressional district that the candidate will represent. Election winners are decided by the plurality rule. That is, the person who receives the highest number of votes wins.How many people are in a representative? ›
On this date, the House passed the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, fixing the number of Representatives at 435. The U.S. Constitution called for at least one Representative per state and that no more than one for every 30,000 persons.How many representatives are there? ›
There are currently 435 voting representatives. Five delegates and one resident commissioner serve as non-voting members of the House, although they can vote in committee. Representatives must be 25 years old and must have been U.S. citizens for at least 7 years. Representatives serve 2-year terms.Who influenced representative government? ›
The single most important influence that shaped the founding of the United States comes from John Locke, a 17th century Englishman who redefined the nature of government.What led to growth of representative government? ›
Mayflower Compact - 1620 (Plymouth)
Each signer promised to obey the laws passed “for the general good of the colony." The Mayflower Compact was a key step in the development of representative, democratic government in America.
A representative group consists of a small number of people who have been chosen to make decisions on behalf of a larger group.
Athens is often regarded by western scholars as the birthplace of democracy and remains an important reference point for democracy.Why do we prefer democracy better than any other form of government? ›
Democracy is better than other forms of government as it enhances the dignity of the individual, improves the quality of decision-making, and provides a method to resolve conflicts. The democratic system depends on the conversation.
When we track the expansion of democracy all over the world in the last hundred years, we can confirm that democracy is the dominant form of government in the contemporary world.Is representative democracy limited or unlimited? ›
Representative democracy in the United States is constitutional because it is both limited and empowered by the supreme law, the Constitution, for the ultimate purpose of protecting equally the rights of all the people.What is a representative democracy kid definition? ›
In a direct democracy all the voters come together in one place to make laws and decisions. Often there are too many people for a direct democracy to work. In those cases the people elect representatives, or other people to speak for them. This is called a representative democracy.What are representatives in simple terms? ›
Also referred to as a congressman or congresswoman, each representative is elected to a two-year term serving the people of a specific congressional district. Among other duties, representatives introduce bills and resolutions, offer amendments and serve on committees.What is a representative kid definition? ›
A children's representative is responsible for looking after groups of children (from babies to young teenagers), organising a varied programme of activities throughout the day, keeping them happy whilst in a safe environment. They are also called kids reps.What is another name for a representative democracy? ›
Another name for representative democracy is indirect democracy. Indirect democracy is any system where the interests of the public are determined by intermediates like representatives. In a direct democracy, the policies and laws of the government are determined by referendum votes that determine the law.What are the types of representative democracy? ›
A representative democracy is an indirect democracy where sovereignty is held by the people's representatives. A liberal democracy is a representative democracy with protection for individual liberty and property by rule of law.Why is democracy is the best form of government? ›
Arguably the importance of liberal democracy is two-fold: no other system of government guarantees the right to free expression of political preference; and no other system promotes progress through peaceful competition between different interests and ideas.
The House of Representatives: is where government is formed; decides matters of national interest; represents the interests of people in their electorates; proposes, debates and votes of bills and amendments; examines issues in committees; and scrutinises executive government.What are the three types of Representatives? ›
Models of representation refer to ways in which elected officials behave in representative democracies. There are three main types: delegate, trustee, and politico.What are the powers of Representatives? ›
The House has several powers assigned exclusively to it, including the power to initiate revenue bills, impeach federal officials, and elect the President in the case of an Electoral College tie.What is representative in a sentence? ›
Employees from each department elect a representative. She had a stressful job as a sales representative. The new head of state should be chosen by an 87 member representative council. He was in no way representative of dog-trainers in general.