Forms of Democracy

Different forms of democracy – elected representatives, elected presidents, and direct voting – vary in how well people are represented

The population expresses its preferences by electing representatives in most Western democracies: politicians who belong to political parties that may reflect different ideologies and approaches, as described earlier (6.2).  The politicians who form the government in a democracy can be collectively dismissed at the next General Election if they fail to perform adequately, to be replaced by opposition politicians (the existence of recognised opposition parties is the biggest difference between democracies and one-party States like China).

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.  The complexities of running a country require the full-time attention of dedicated individuals: public servants for technical expertise and politicians for policy oversight, as described at the start of this chapter (6.1.2).  Politicians in a democracy should ensure that the country is run according to the population’s wishes, broadly expressed by its votes.

A vote for an elected all-powerful president is another form of democracy.  It is purely majoritarian if there is no other mechanism for representation of a range of voters’ wishes, so minorities may feel permanently disenfranchised.  Many of the considerations described previously, on authoritarian political systems (6.3.1), are relevant to elected presidencies.

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 purely 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, a method of consultation, as described later in this chapter (6.5.3).

Combinations of the above forms of democracy are possible.  A body of representatives can act as a legislature in a democratic political system, as described earlier (5.1.3), and thereby acts as a check upon an elected president – as is the case in France and America.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6321b.htm