6.3.2.1  Forms of Democracy                                      

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/6321.htm)

Democracy can be broadly defined as a system of government where the power resides in the people,[1] though in this book it is more narrowly defined as a system in which people can vote for politicians and/or policies.[2]  In practice there is no problem-free way of implementing the ideal of giving power to the people, so all claims made for democracy have to be tempered with reality.  This book focuses on representative democracy, after a brief look at elected presidencies and direct democracy.

A vote for an elected all-powerful president, without also having a body of representatives, provides no mechanism for representation of a range of voters’ wishes – so minorities may feel permanently disenfranchised.  It also tends to amplify the problems of personality politics, as discussed later (6.3.4.2).  With an appropriate separation of powers (5.2.8), a body of representatives can act as a check upon a president and can form a legislature – but without this separation, oppression would be all too easy.

Direct democracy, where people vote on individual issues, has been made easier by technology: the Internet and computerised telephony for example.  A referendum is a useful technique for determining the people’s will on a single big issue which can be phrased as a simple question, and it constitutes a transparently balanced negotiation, but it has limitations:

·      It cannot deal with the enormous number of decisions required to govern a country.

·      It is inherently majoritarian; a vote without discussion doesn’t provide any mechanism for the expression of minority views.

·      There are many complex issues for which most people cannot offer an informed view.

The democratic government of a whole country thus necessitates the appointment of politicians and accountable institutions – and the role of direct democracy is best considered as a useful supplementary technique, which is mentioned later in this chapter as part of ‘consultative governance’ (6.5.3).

In most Western democracies the population expresses its preferences by electing politicians who belong to political parties which may either support or oppose the government.  These political parties reflect different ideologies and approaches, as described earlier (6.2.1).  If the people are not satisfied they will replace these politicians in a subsequent election – so politicians depend upon popular support to avoid de-selection and keep their jobs.  

Opposition, in the form of a credible alternative to the current government, is necessary to the workings of a democracy; otherwise a government cannot be held accountable and the act of voting is meaningless. 

Even if there is a credible opposition, though, voting for a representative is not very effective as a mechanism for people to guide policy.  The next few sections examine some of the problems:

·      People’s votes might be given for a variety of reasons (6.3.2.2), not necessarily connected with the policies they would prefer;

·      Party manifestos don’t reliably guide voters (6.3.2.3);

·      No system of voting is truly representative (6.3.2.4);

·      Politicians often resort to short-term populism to get votes (6.3.2.5).

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 



[1] The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives one of its definitions of democracy as “A State or community in which the power of government resides in or is exercised by the people.”

[2] The informal wording of the definition of democracy used in this book is intended to loosely correspond with the more precise definition used by Timothy Besley and Masayuki Kudamatsu, in Making Autocracy Work (op. cit.):

“A regime is democratic if all of the following five conditions are met: (1) the chief executive is elected directly or indirectly; (2) the legislature is elected by popular elections; (3) there is more than one legal political party; (4) the current chief executive will not establish non-party or one-party rule or unconstitutionally close legislature in subsequent years; and (5) there was, or will be, partisan power alternation via elections.” [p. 31 of the pdf publication of this article]

The article was available in May 2014 at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/3764/1/Making_Autocracy_Work.pdf.