Representation in Political Science

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  • 0:01 Direct vs.…
  • 1:31 Parliamentary Systems
  • 3:23 Presidential Systems
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Given the size and complexity of a modern state, direct democracy is impractical, if not infeasible. In this lesson, you'll learn about representative democracy, its different forms, and how it differs from direct democracy.

Direct vs. Representative Democracy

Maria Hernandez is a United States Representative who is attending a State Dinner at the White House honoring the visit of the British Prime Minister. One of her dinner companions is Nigel White, a member of the House of Commons, which is the lower house of the British Parliament. Both Representative Hernandez and Member of Parliament (MP) White are elected representatives in a democratic government.

Two general types of democratic governments have existed in history. Direct democracy is a system of government in which citizens fully participate in the formation of government policy. In other words, citizens vote on all the laws and policies to be undertaken by the State. Direct democracies at the level of national government are very rare as they are pretty impractical in our modern world. Perhaps the most well-known direct democracy was the ancient city-state of Athens. One form of direct democracy that is sometimes exercised in the modern world is a ballot referendum, where citizens will vote on whether a specific law should be passed.

Representative democracy is the other major type of democratic system. Representative democracy is also called 'indirect democracy.' It is a system in which citizens democratically elect individuals to represent them in government. The elected representatives formulate and implement government policies. Nearly all democratic states today are representative democracies. Of course, not all indirect democracies are structured the same. Let's look at the two primary models.

Parliamentary Systems

The parliamentary system is one of the forms of representative government. In a parliamentary system, citizens vote for members of parliament, like Nigel. A parliament is a legislature. Parliament enacts the law, and there is no one who has veto power like the President of the United States.

The executive powers of the State are interconnected with the legislature in parliamentary systems. The executive power is found in the cabinet. Members of the cabinet are selected by parliament to implement laws and other executive functions. The cabinet members are selected by the parliament membership, which means that the party, or coalition of parties, with the most votes in parliament determines the cabinet. The head of state is often referred to as the prime minister or chancellor. Members of parliament maintain their seats in parliament even if selected for the cabinet. For example, Nigel is a Member of Parliament and holds a cabinet position.

The cabinet in a parliamentary system usually only serves as long as it has the confidence of parliament. In other words, the cabinet holds power only as long as it controls the majority of votes in parliament. If the cabinet's party loses the majority, or the coalition of parties forming a majority breaks up, the cabinet may suffer a vote of 'no confidence' and be removed from office with a new cabinet selected by the party or coalition of parties controlling the majority of votes in parliament.

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