The structure of a representative democracy allows individuals to vote for a specific elected official who can represent their needs within the government. Instead of requiring a vote from everyone, every time an issue arises, the representatives are able to vote on the behalf of their district. This simplifies the process of the democracy while ensuring all parties receive representation.
One of the disadvantages of this system is that the elected official may decide to vote in a way that does not represent the majority of their district. They could choose to make a vote based on their own personal preferences or choose not to show up for the vote and leave their representatives without representation.
As with any form of government, there are additional advantages and disadvantages of a representative democracy that must also be considered.
The Advantages of a Representative Democracy
1. When operating as it should, it is a highly efficient form of government.
A representative democracy incorporates balances and checks within the structure of government so that one group doesn’t gain more power over another group. When each party is performing their duties as they should, a representative democracy is quite efficient because it is designed to have people work together so there is a spirit of cooperation.
2. People still have a say in how their government operates.
Although a representative democracy takes away the direct decision-making power of individuals over national policy, it does not completely eliminate their influence on the government. If the population is dissatisfied with the performance of their elected official, they can vote to remove that person on the next election cycle.
3. It provides thorough representation of the general public.
Elected officials are tasked with making decisions for their entire district or region. Everyone who lives in that area benefits from the official being part of the government. Even individuals who are not engaged in the political process benefit from this representation. This allows more people to benefit from the decisions the government makes when compared with other types of ruling structures.
4. People still have a voice.
Individuals may not be voting on individual issues within a representative democracy, but they can still have their opinions heard. Letters can be written to their representatives. Meetings with their representatives occur frequently during times of governmental recess. If the population feels like their voices aren’t being heard by their elected officials, there is always the option to legally protest.
5. It simplifies the decision-making process.
Instead of forcing everyone to vote on everything, a representative democracy allows decisions to be made by a group of elected officials. In some instances, the leader of a nation may be given the power to make certain decisions on behalf of the electorate. Because of this assignment and delegation, decisions can be make quicker and this makes the government more responsive to a potential emergency situation.
6. Controls can be put into place to limit the individual actions of an elected official.
Recall petitions and similar rules can be used within a representative democracy to allow a district to remove an elected official who is not meeting their expectations.
The Disadvantages of a Representative Democracy
1. It can easily devolve into gridlock.
A clear majority does not usually rule in a representative democracy. There are 2+ political parties in most systems that each have a specific platform of priorities they wish to pursue. When those platforms are polarized from one another, it creates gridlock within the government and that stops most of the work from being done. Even when there is a clear majority, as evidenced by the 2016 US political cycle, it can still be difficult to avoid gridlock because each representative as their own priorities to pursue.
2. Trust is required to make this government structure work.
Once an official is elected to represent them, the population must trust that their representative will pursue their needs as efficiently as possible. There is nothing that they can offer from that point forward besides faith in the political process. Someone with a secret agenda could co-opt an election, become a representative, and then pursue something entirely different than what their election platform stated.
3. It requires frequent and open communication to be effective.
A common complaint about a representative democracy is that the elected officials are “out of touch.” This occurs because a representative must be present where the government meets, which could be thousands of miles away from their district. Some districts may also have highly varied socioeconomic groups that have conflicting needs. Without frequent and open communication with everyone, this system of government breaks down quickly.
4. This form of government encourages deception.
Because the power of the people is typically over after the vote takes place in a representative democracy, it encourages officials to be deceptive. Once they win the vote, they can pursue their own agenda and little is in the way to stop them for several years. In the United States, for example, a Senator is elected to a 6-year term.
5. It is still a costly form of government.
Although the costs are lower in a representative democracy compared to a true democracy, there are still frequent votes which must take place. Millions are spent on each election. For the two major political parties in the United States, they spent a combined $1.6 billion on the 2016 Presidential election alone. To put that cost in perspective, a community food bank could provide over 5 billion meals to the hungry with that level of investment.
6. The majority still rules at the expense of the minority.
From the Civil Rights Movement in the United States to Apartheid in South Africa, there are numerous instances throughout history where the majority ruled at the expense of the minority. A representative democracy still depends on a majority rule structure to implement policies and make most decisions. When the majority is not ethically or morally right, the structure of government can put the lives of people who are in the minority at great risk.
7. In some ways, it discourages participation.
People know that they will receive governmental representation, whether they choose to vote or not, when there is a representative democracy in power. For some, that means they choose not to participate in the voting process because they automatically receive this representation. Others choose not to participate because the officials running in an election do not represent their needs. In some situations, it creates a situation where the minority can usurp the majority when there are high levels of non-involvement.
The advantages and disadvantages of a representative democracy show us that, with balance, it can be an effective form of government. As long as communication lines remain open and elected officials act honestly, the people can still have a voice in how their lives will evolve over time.