6.5.1 Representative Democracy

In a representative democracy, people elect politicians to take decisions for the common good and to negotiate on their behalf.

The commonest form of democracy, as described earlier (6.3.2), is to elect politicians as representatives.  The election is people’s main opportunity to express a choice about most political decisions.  The elected politicians are then empowered to act on behalf of the people.  As argued by Edmund Burke, in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

 As illustrated earlier (6.1.2), politicians act as intermediaries, representatives, negotiators, directors and decision-makers in a representative democracy.  They act as intermediaries, between different groups of people within their constituencies and between the population and public services.  They are representatives and negotiators when dealing with other political units.  They are directors and decision-makers for public services, and they take decisions about when to use military force.

Several aspects of employing politicians as representatives are explored in the following sub-sections:

●  There is a need for representatives in politics (  People have neither the time nor expertise to take all the decisions affecting their lives, and politicians can call upon the best available expertise to assist them.

●  The basis for selection of representatives is important (, because politicians act on behalf of the population in a representative democracy.  Those elected are often not the most appropriate individuals.

●  They must be representatives instead of delegates (  They should be empowered to take the necessary political decisions, because the public has neither the time nor the expertise to do so.

●  There are problems with representation as a way of letting the population choose how to be governed (  Voters are limited to making a single decision at election time, and politicians have their own agendas.

It is possible to overcome the limitations of relying on politicians as representatives by employing consultative governance on major issues, as described below (6.5.3).



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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/edition04/651.htm