6.3.2.1 Forms of Democracy

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6321.htm)

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:

  • Referendums cannot deal with the enormous number of decisions required to govern a country.
  • They are inherently majoritarian; a vote without discussion doesn’t offer any way to express minority views.
  • There are many complex issues for which most people cannot offer an informed view, due to lack of time, expertise and/or inclination. Britain’s Electoral Reform Society has published a paper on these issues, entitled It’s Good to Talk: Doing referendums differently after the EU vote.

The role of direct democracy is thus best considered as a useful supplementary technique: as a method of consultation, as described later in this chapter (6.5.3).

In most Western democracies the population expresses its preferences by electing representatives: politicians who belong to political parties that may reflect different ideologies and approaches, as described earlier (6.2).  The procedure for selecting politicians is the biggest difference between democracies and one-party States like China, which select them by examination; the other big difference between the two systems is that the politicians who form the government in a democracy can be collectively dismissed at the next General Election if they fail to perform adequately.

The selected politicians must be empowered to act, to the best of their ability, for the benefit of the people.  Representatives should not be mere delegates, even in a democracy.  The complexities of running a country require the full-time attention of dedicated individuals: public servants for technical expertise and politicians for policy oversight.  Politicians should ensure that the country is run according to the population’s wishes, broadly expressed by its votes.

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.

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