Representative democracy

Representative democracy

Representative democracy is a form of government founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people, as opposed to autocracy and direct democracy.[1] for example, two countries which use representative democracy are the United Kingdom (a constitutional monarchy) and Germany (a federal republic).

It is an element of both the parliamentary system and presidential system of government and is typically used in a lower chamber such as the House of Commons (UK) or Bundestag (Germany), and is generally curtailed by constitutional constraints such as an independent judiciary or an upper chamber. It has been described by some political theorists as Polyarchy.



The representatives form an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people's interest, but not as their proxy representatives nor necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances. Moreover, democracies in the modern and contemporary world as so called since the representatives are voted for by the people. Such a method makes them solely accountable to the people. It is often contrasted with direct democracy, where representatives are absent or are limited in power as proxy representatives. Edmund Burke was an early proponent of these principles: ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.[2]

There is no necessity that individual liberties be respected in a representative democracy: one that does not is an illiberal democracy. A representative democracy that emphasizes individual liberty is a liberal democracy.

Today, in liberal representative democracies, representatives are usually elected in free and fair multi-party elections. Different methods of selecting representatives are described in the article on electoral systems, but often a number of representatives are elected by, and responsible to, a particular subset of the total electorate: this is called his or her constituency.

Powers of representatives

Representatives sometimes hold the power to select other representatives, presidents, or other officers of government (indirect representation)[citation needed]

The power of representatives is usually curtailed by a constitution (as in a constitutional democracy or a constitutional monarchy) or other measures to balance representative power:[citation needed]


A European medieval tradition of selecting representatives from the various estates (effectively, classes, but not as we know them today) to advise/control monarchs led to relatively wide familiarity with representative systems.

Representative democracy came into particular general favour in post-industrial revolution nation states where large numbers of subjects or (latterly) citizens evinced interest in politics, but where technology and population figures remained unsuited to direct democracy. As noted above, Edmund Burke in his speech to the electors of Bristol classically analysed their operation in Britain and the rights and duties of an elected representative.

Globally, a majority of the world's people live in representative democracies including constitutional monarchy with strong representative branch– the first time in history that this has been true. It has been the most successful form of civics since absolute monarchy[citation needed].

Relation to republicanism

The related term republic may have many different meanings. It normally means a state with an elected or otherwise non-monarchical head of state, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or Republic of Korea.

Sometimes in the US it is used similarly to liberal (representative) democracy. For example:

"The United States relies on representative democracy, but its system of government is much more complex than that. It is not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered."[3]

See also


  1. ^ "Victorian Electronic Democracy : Glossary". 28 July 2005. Archived from the original on 13 December 2007. Retrieved 14 December 2007. 
  2. ^ The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Volume I. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1854. pp. 446–8. 
  3. ^ Scheb, John M. (2006). An Introduction to the American Legal System. Thomson Delmar Learning. p. 6. 

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