What is Representative Democracy? - Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons

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  • 0:01 How Is Representative…
  • 1:13 Where Does Democracy…
  • 3:02 Basics of a Democracy
  • 3:26 Examples of a…
  • 5:18 Pros and Cons of a…
  • 8:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
Democracy has become, for many Americans, an unquestionable positive. For most of us, referring to a nation as 'un-democratic' is a pretty strong slur. But what does it really mean to be 'democratic?' Where did this idea come from? And what is 'representative democracy,' the sort practiced in the United States?

How Is Representative Democracy Defined?

Simply put, a representative democracy is a system of government in which all eligible citizens vote on representatives to pass laws for them. A perfect example is the U.S., where we elect a president and members of the Congress. We also elect local and state officials. All of these elected officials supposedly listen to the populace and do what's best for the nation, state or jurisdiction as a whole.

For a representative democracy to work, there are several conditions that have to be met. First, there has to be an opportunity for genuine competition in the selection of leadership (if people think that elections are rigged, or predetermined, there can be no meaningfully honest competition). Second, there has to be free communication, both among the people and in the press. Third, voters have to believe that a meaningful choice exists between candidates and that differences in policy are honestly reflected in each. The degree to which these three factors are present go a long way to determining the effectiveness of a representative democracy.

Where Does Democracy Come From?

Winston Churchill once said democracy 'is the worst form of government in the world, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.' Many human societies have practiced some form of democracy over the millennia, the most important (for the American version, at any rate) example originated in ancient Greece. The world's first working democracy, as far as we can tell, was established by Cleisthenes in the Greek city-state of Athens, around 508 BCE.

The Greeks came up with the form of government that we call direct democracy, which is a precursor to representative democracy. In a direct democracy, all eligible citizens vote on every issue. For example, if a direct democracy were considering a tax increase, all the eligible voters would vote on that decision. This form of government is often called 'participatory' or 'Aristotelian democracy.' In Athens, the concept of 'eligible' voters only included male citizens and excluded all others (slaves and women could not vote).

However, imagine for a moment having to vote on every single thing that happens in a country—it would be impossible, for many reasons, especially in a country the size of the U.S. The Greeks thought so, too, so they came up with a way to choose a smaller subset of individuals to do the voting. In Athens, for example, the citizens made use of a device called a kleroterion, which was something like a bingo-ball selector. Each citizen would receive a token representing him; several hundred were picked each day, and for a time, they would make decisions for the entire city-state. This was an early form of the next evolution of democracy, called representative democracy.

Basics of a Democracy

But what is democracy, anyhow? It's generally agreed that there are five criteria that are necessary for any society to call itself democratic:

  • Equality in voting
  • Effective participation
  • Enlightened understanding
  • Citizen control of the agenda
  • Inclusion (must be open to all citizens within a nation)

Examples of a Representative Democracy

Representative democracies are much more common, and much more varied, than direct democracies today. Overall, democracies differ from each other in the way that they elect and appoint officials and how their governments are structured.

The U.S.

The U.S., of course, is one of the oldest and most stable representative democracies in the world. The U.S. is a federal republic in which a large central government co-exists with smaller state governments. The federal government of the U.S. is set up with three branches: executive (the president), legislative (the House and Senate) and judicial (the Supreme Court). State and local governments are set up in various ways.

Great Britain

Great Britain, on the other hand, practices a form of parliamentary democracy, which in many ways is similar to the U.S. system, with one major exception: unlike the U.S., which has separate legislative and executive branches, there are just the two legislative branches: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The 'leader' of the British state, also called the Prime Minister, is the leader of the nation's majority party. Unlike in the U.S., the Prime Minister is part of the legislative branch, instead of its own executive branch.

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