Do the People Truly Rule in a Representative Democracy?

Essay, 2012

8 Pages, Grade: 76



‘The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them’ (Rousseau, 2008: 95)

In this passage of his work The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes in a nutshell what may be referred to as the dilemma of representative democracy. If our legislative and executive institutions are only directly accountable to us as voters at particular points in the election cycle, how can we claim that sovereignty still lies with the people? This essay will investigate the character of representative democracy, contrasted with an analysis of direct democracy. A brief definition of the term democracy will be followed by a consideration of both the moral and the instrumental dimensions of these two distinct concepts of democracy. As a conclusion, representative democracy will be identified as a viable, if flawed, form of democracy. Nonetheless, the contributions provided by elements of direct democracy will be acknowledged and embraced.

What is Democracy?

Etymologically, the term democracy is synonymous with ‘rule by the people’ (McLean, McMillan, 2009: 139). Elements entailed by democracy include what is referred to by ‘the people’, what is understood as a majority and whether a potential government is formed by the people as a whole or by a select group (Ibid: 140-141). Furthermore, Goodwin notes that democracy is based on the consent of the governed, the rule of law, the existence of a common good as well as political equality and equal civil rights for individuals (2007: 288). Democracy is often associated with liberalism, although Goodwin (Ibid: 308-9) and Schweizer (1995: 359) recognize several incompatibilities between the two.

Representative Democracy

In order to discuss the merits and deficiencies of a representative system of democracy, one first has to clarify what we mean by the concept of representation itself. In essence, two conditions have to be met in order for representation to take place, as outlined by Runciman and Vieira (2008: 67-9); firstly, in a principal-agent relationship, the principal has to have a presence in the action undertaken by the agent. Secondly, the principal has to be present for someone else, which requires an audience of some kind.

Along these lines, we can distinguish between two kinds of representation that are relevant in the context of a discussion about democracy. On the one hand, the concept of a mandate strictly limits the scope of possible actions undertaken by the agent. The representing agent is supposed to act at all times in line with the explicit instructions given by the principal, which means that the agent is effectively a mouthpiece for the principal (Ibid: 74). On the other hand, the agent may act as a trustee, thus not being subject to the strict directives given by the principal, but acting as her own person. This was favored by Burke to ensure populism was not going to determine government (Goodwin, 2007: 308). Naturally, both concepts lead to specific implications. While a mandate system may lead to a more genuine representation, it can also be cumbersome. Furthermore, there is the problem of how to accurately represent groups within a mandate system, given that they may have contradictory interests (Ibid: 308-9). A trusteeship system is certainly more convenient, but encounters questions about accountability, which is at the heart of the question asked in the introduction.

Certainly, the advantage possessed by a representative system is the possibility of extended and direct deliberation. Ideally, the chosen representatives should possess outstanding capacities to find policy solutions that lead to the best possible outcomes. Pearce quotes Dahl’s argument that the size of the vast majority of modern nation states does not permit even limited direct deliberation within a fully democratic framework, which necessitates a representative system (2010: 4). Thus, representation seeks to ensure a genuine debate about legislation and the public good. For Knopff, this is the primary virtue of representative democracy (1998: 689).

A further benefit of representative systems over direct democratic systems is the protection of minority rights as well as the safeguard against what Tocqueville called the ‘tyranny of the majority’ (Holmes in Copp et al., 27). In an empirical study, Haider-Markel et al. have found that ‘minority rights do in fact fare better in representative democracy’ (2007: 313), although their analysis was limited to gay and lesbian rights. In a more normative argument, Mill questions the ability of large numbers of the public to make the right judgments, seeing as ‘very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness’ (Collini, 1989). Therefore, we choose representatives not only out of convenience but because of a belief in their capacity to identify the public good, as for example the safeguarding of minority rights.


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Do the People Truly Rule in a Representative Democracy?
Queen Mary University of London  (Department of Politics and International Relations)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Representation, Democracy, Representative Democracy, Direct Democracy, Deliberation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J.S. Mill, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Minority Rights, Trusteeship, Mandate, Participation
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Tim Pfefferle (Author), 2012, Do the People Truly Rule in a Representative Democracy?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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