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What Exactly Is Representative Democracy?

2 min read
Alex Furlin · Sep 18, 2023

You’ve probably heard the term “representative democracy” thrown around a lot – especially in reference to the United States of America being a representative democracy. But what does being a representative democracy really mean? Is it different in practice than it is in theory? 

There’s a lot to get into, from how representative democracy functions within the United States’ political system, to how it affects the creation of laws, regulations, and referendums, to how it impacts and inspires – or restricts – active citizen participation in government.  

Before we delve into the fascinating and complex realities around what constitutes a representative democracy, and how one representative democracy can be drastically different from another, we need to define some terms first, so that we’re all on the same page.

Defining Terms: What’s a Democracy? What Is Representation? 

Though it may seem like a no-brainer to an American audience, the definition of “democracy” isn’t quite as cut and dry as you may assume. Democracy, at the linguistic level, literally means “rule by the people” – it comes from the Greek “demos” (people) and “kratos” (rule) – and this should ring true to Americans, who are probably familiar with their political system being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” 

However, who decides what the people truly want? How should power be carved up in order to serve what the people want? How should people interact with democratic systems of power at the local level vs. the national level? These are all issues that complicate what it means to be a democracy, and they’re why, for the most part, democratic participation in the political system tends to boil down to two main distinct varieties: representative democracy and direct democracy

In a representative democracy, the “representation” factor is borne out of the people voting, in a democratic process, for politicians and leaders to represent their wishes and points of view as a part of a larger institutional voting body. In a very real sense, voters from constituencies of various sizes (a town with a population of 13,000 or an entire nation with a population of 300 million) will elect an individual to represent what the majority of their constituency desires. 


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Where does that representation occur? All over the political landscape. In Congress, in the Senate, in the White House, even the Supreme Court. These are all powerful political institutions that are incapable of digesting the individual ideas of all 300 million Americans. So by having states, cities, towns, etc. vote on and elect representatives, the system can have these representatives (Congresspeople, Senators, Presidents, etc.) work within these institutions on behalf of the larger populations who voted them into office – because not everyone can just drop everything they are doing to become educated on every single matter of political importance.

So, in a nutshell, representative democracy is all about preserving the will of the people, as best it can, in a manner that is logistically efficient. It can be difficult enough to quorum all 435 members of the House of Representatives for a legislative vote – imagine how difficult it would be to round up 160 million individual voters every time a new bill was introduced to the floor. 

This is the core difference that representative democracy strikes from its main counterpart, direct democracy. Direct democracy is any system in which every single eligible voter is asked to weigh in on matters of legislation and political functioning. So, for example, instead of 1,000,000 citizens voting on two Senators to cast votes on their behalf in the U.S. Senate, all 1,000,000 citizens will have to cast votes on whether they want a given bill to pass or not. 

At scale, the advantages of representative democracy begin to become clear, because it’s not realistic or feasible to expect all 1,000,000 people in Delaware to 

  1. Have a well-rounded understanding of every single political and governance issue

  2. Have the free time to thoroughly consider all options before forming their opinion

  3. Be constantly voting on government and political matters all the time 

The solution for this logistical issue, representative democracy posits, is to elect representatives who have won the trust of their specific constituency to make legislative decisions on their behalf. It’s similar to having a lawyer represent you in a court of law – would you rather have someone who has spent their life educating themselves and training themselves in all manner of courtroom law, or would you prefer to represent yourself in front of a judge? Representative democracy traces along similar lines, except politically, not judicially. 

However, it is imperative to note that most democratic nations are not simply all representative democracies or all direct democracies. In many U.S. states, for example, voter petitions can make it to the ballot during election years, in which the broader electorate can directly vote yes or no on whichever propositions are on the ballot that year, and the results of that referendum will become law, based on the direct participation of the electorate.

For example, in 2016, citizens in California voted to approve Proposition 64, legalizing recreational use of marijuana, with 57% of the vote. In a case like this, it was not elected representatives who voted on a bill in the legislative chamber, but rather a measure of direct democracy via voter petition. Not all state constitutions allow for voter referendums like this, however, so the practice is relatively scattershot throughout the union. But it does serve to illustrate that although it is a representative democracy, the United States does employ some methods of direct democracy from time to time. 

Pros vs. Cons Of Representative Democracy

Now that we’ve got a solid handle on what it means to be a representative democracy, the question remains: what are the benefits and drawbacks to organizing a political system this way? There’s no such thing as a perfect political system, or a perfect way to organize large-scale political systems, so every system will have its pluses and its minuses. In a nutshell, these are the relative pros and cons of representative democracies:

Advantages of Representative Democracy

  • Logistical efficiency: Because average citizens elect representatives to carry out governance and legislation on their behalf, not only do the average citizens free up more time in their days to be productive or for leisure, it also speeds up the process of policymaking in government. Needing to win a majority of 435 votes can be accomplished a lot more efficiently than winning a majority of 300 million votes. 

  • Specialization: Electing representative leaders allows for those individuals to specialize in their knowledge of specific issues and law. For example, citizens in the U.S. can vote on judges, who have an expert-level handling of judicial issues, vs. having every single citizen, who isn’t as familiar with the nuances of history and law, vote on every single trial themselves. 

  • Checks and balances: Voting on representatives in highly distinct branches of government allows each branch to provide essential checks and balances of each other. Congress generates legislation and oversees Cabinet and Supreme Court hearings, the Executive Branch signs laws and manages the military, and the judicial branch rules on the constitutionality of Congress’s laws. Without representative democracy, there would only be one single check and balance on every single issue and every single public figure: voting. 

  • Variable citizen participation: In representative democracy, it’s left up to the individual for how involved in the political process they wish to be. Many decide to tune out altogether, only voting in presidential elections or not voting at all. Others may decide to become activists or even run for office themselves to become a representative. A major advantage of representative democracy is that it allows the individual the freedom to decide how much they want to involve themselves in public politics.

Disadvantages of Representative Democracy

  • Limited citizen participation: One major con to representative democracy is that after a given constituency elects a leader to office, that leader is now free to vote however they please. Technically, they don’t have to listen to the community that elected them into office whatsoever – and many elected representatives make decisions and votes that go directly against the wishes of their own voters. There is a reason that the current approval rating in Congress is only 19%. Now, voting in line with their constituency’s wishes may help the politician’s chances at re-election, and voting against their wishes might threaten their chances, but the whole point is that the elected leader doesn’t have to listen to the voters if they don’t want to, or if they have other motives for voting the other way. 

  • Corruption: By electing representatives to work on behalf of the people, special interests have a very concentrated set of people they can work towards influencing for their own gain. It’s much easier to persuade 10 individual politicians who sit on a Congressional committee to either support or kill any given bill or amendment than it is to persuade an entire nation to vote one way or another, as it would be under direct democracy. And because elected representatives require ever-larger sums of money in order to win re-election and stay in office, monied interests are able to exert their influence and dominance over elected officials far more easily and successfully than if everything were run through direct democracy. 

  • Political polarization: Choosing individuals to represent their community in government has birthed the creation of political parties – large institutions that provide ideological, organizational, and financial resources for politicians seeking to win office or win re-election. In a direct democracy, in which specific issues are simply voted on in a yes or no manner, there is no need for political parties to even exist. But with representative government, political parties make it extremely efficient for certain individuals to run for office and to function in office – even if such polarization into two distinct parties leads to extreme gridlock, heightened conflict, and an “us vs. them” mentality that only serves to increase the power of the elected representatives, leaving behind the constituencies who actually voted them into office to begin with. 

Closing Thoughts

The inescapable reality is that whatever your opinion on representative democracy might be, it’s the status quo in America and will be for the foreseeable future. The question facing voters in America isn’t whether we should be represented by elected politicians, but who should represent us? 

As it stands, the current two-party duopoly is exerting a stranglehold on the functioning of American democracy, leading both parties to a race to the bottom in which the object of public representation isn’t to improve the lives of the people, but to increase their party’s own chances of remaining in power. 

That’s why organizations like Good Party are devising tools and programs to help independent candidates seek and win office – now, more than ever, we need independent voices representing the people at all levels of government, because representation by either of the two major political parties is not delivering the results the American people want to see. Sign up and learn more about what Good Party is doing to help usher in a more independent-minded future in American politics.


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Politics 101
By Alex Furlin
Alex Furlin is a freelance writer for Good Party.