Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science






What are the two basic elements of representative democracy? What makes representative government an oligarchy? What makes it a democracy? How may representative democracy be defined?

1. Representative Democracy--Two Basic Elements:

Representative democracy consists of two basic elements--representative government and democratic government.

Representative Government. Representative government, or political representation, means government by elected representatives, government carried on by representatives chosen by and responsible to the voters. The voters do not govern directly and personally, as in a direct democracy. Instead, the voters elect representatives to act in their behalf--i.e., to represent them--in governing the political society. Through peaceful and legal elections, the representatives are made responsible (accountable, or answerable) to the voters for the day-to-day operation of the government. The general voting populace, through periodic elections, is able to influence and ultimately control the official decisions and actions of government officeholders and institutions.

A major underlying premise of representative government concerns the proper role of the voters in a political society, or community. The proper role of the voters is not to govern society but to "produce a government," i.e., to produce a " government of the day"--a governing elite that will rule the community until after the next election. The role of the electorate, in other words, is not to govern but to chose those who will govern for a term and to hold them accountable for the manner in which they govern.

Constitutional, Representative Government. When representative government is combined with constitutionalism, the resulting political regime is a constitutional, representative government. A constitutional, representative government, however, is not necessarily a democratic government. In looking at the British governmental system from 1689 to 1832, we saw that a regime can be constitutional and representative in its basic character, without being democratic. If those who are legally entitled to qualify for the electoral franchise under a constitutional, representative political regime comprise only a very small percentage of the society's voting-age population, then the regime is not a democracy, as the term is defined by contemporary political scientists. With only a very small proportion of the voting-age population having the legal right to register as voters and with the governing elite therefore being elected directly or indirectly by a very small minority of the adult members of society, the political regime is a constitutional, representative government, but it is not a democratic government. Such a governmental system would be a constitutional oligarchy, as was Britain's constitutional, representative government during the period from 1689 to 1832.

Democratic Government. Democracy, or democratic government, is the basic feature or element that must be combined with constitutionalism and representative government in order to make a political regime a constitutional democracy. In a democratic system, those who govern society do so with the consent of the general populace. If the regime is both democratic and representative, consent to govern is given through an electoral system characterized by peaceful and legal procedures for choosing among rival political elites and by an electoral suffrage for which, by far, the greater percentage of adult citizens can legally qualify. In a representative democracy, a very large proportion of the society's voting-age population has the legal right--or the opportunity to obtain the legal right--to vote in periodic elections. The periodic elections are held to choose representatives who, during fixed or limited terms, hold major policymaking offices in the government and jointly constitute the "government of the day"--e.g., the President and Congress in the U.S.A. and the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Great Britain.

2. Representative Democracy--A Definition:

Representative democracy is a system of government in which those who possess authority to govern the political society--those who have the right to make decisions that have the force of law and are therefore binding on all members of the society--acquire and retain this authority either directly or indirectly as the consequence of winning free and competitive elections in which the great majority of adult citizens are allowed to vote. Representative democracy, in other words, is government carried on by elected representatives. Authoritative decisionmaking and action on public policy is carried on by government officeholders elected directly or indirectly by the voters and by those appointed or suceeding to their offices in accordance with the laws of the political community.

In a representative democracy, major officeholders in the government must face periodic election and are thereby made accountable (responsible, or answerable) to the voters for their official decisions and actions while in office. Elections are held at regular and comparatively short intevals. Thus, incumbent holders of elective office must regularly and frequently run for and win reelection in order to retain their positions of political authority. Free, competitive elections and public accountability put the voters in a position to cast judgement on the authoritative decisions and actions of public officeholders. If dissatisfied with the official decisions and actions, the voters can deny reelection to the official decisionmakers, voting them out of government office. If, on the other hand, the voters are satisfied with the authoritative decisions, they can reelect the authoritative decisionmakers.

3. Examples of Representative Democracy:

Examples of representative democracy include all contemporary constitutional democracies, at the national level. In the U.S.A., the fifty states and most local governments, as well as the national government, are representative democracies.

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